Rating: (4.5 out of 5)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, and James Whitmore.
Directed by: Frank Darabont
I started Prison Flicks back in 2000. From the very beginning, readers have written in suggesting movies for review, and from day one, the most popular request was for me to review The Shawshank Redemption. Indeed, several correspondents argued that I had no right to call my site a prison movie review site without reviewing Shawshank. I received so many requests that I even included a mention of it in my FAQ:
Now, the thing is, reviewing the Shawshank Redemption (1994) is all well and good, but does anyone really care what I have to say about it? Where is the value added?
Well, apparently, people do care what I have to say, although I still have to admit, I am not sure what value added I can provide. Still, I am willing to try.
Shawshank famously bombed at the box office, barely covering its $25 million budget in receipts (though it did get seven Academy Award nominations). It found new life on video, and became something of a cult classic as a result, and is now routinely considered one of the best American movies of all time by the broader public, even if it only usually receives polite acknowledgment from critics as a good movie. It has resided in the top-five spots on the IMDb rankings for years, although it rarely makes the top-fifty spots for professional movie critics. It is easy to see what that is the case. Professional critics see a lot of movies, and they tend to be cynical about anything melodramatic, and Shawshank does tend toward sentimental in parts. That said, I do think this is a case where the broader public – or at least the kind of public that frequents and votes on IMDb – has a better insight into the value of this movie than the elite reviewers.
Let me say upfront, that I think Shawshank is a superb movie, only marred by an unnecessary misstep in the middle of the film and by a somewhat mawkish ending. The misstep in the middle is more serious, and makes the movie a tad too conventional in many ways… but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Though there is a strong supporting cast, this is really a two-man show. Morgan Freeman plays Red, a convicted murderer and a lifer at Shawshank Prison. After 20 years in stir, Red has adapted to prison life surprisingly well. He’s essentially a black marketeer – though a nice one; he only charges a 20% markup on the goods he provides — and he knows how everything works. He’s the ultimate insider, making him a perfect narrator for the story. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker suddenly torn from his comfortable life when he is convicted of the murder of his cheating wife. Andy is an enigma. When we first meet him, he seems stiff and vulnerable. Red bets that Andy will be the first of a new batch of prisoners to crack, but he doesn’t, and throughout the movie, we discover with surprise each new reservoir of strength the man possesses.
In the first part of the of movie, Andy is an observed character rather than anything else. He has almost no dialogue and is usually seen from Red’s point of view. We see Andy shuffling uneasily among the prisoners, we see him stalked and ultimately overcome by a gang of prison rapists led by Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston), and we see him slowly carve out a niche for himself among the prisoners. The movie wisely keeps its distance from Andy at this point – in part because I don’t think it would be possible to really engage him without falling back on cliches. For instance, the movie makes clear that Andy is raped, repeatedly. We never really get a sense of how this affects him. We see him physically battered, but not broken, but we never see the emotional effect. I think it is possible to see this as a weakness in the film – that the movie is simply unwilling to consider the effect on Andy physically (aside from some bruises), emotionally, and mentally.
But then consider how this is dealt with in other prison movies because, obviously, rape – either the threat or reality of it – is a central, though sometimes implicit rather than explicit theme in the genre. In some movies – such as most of the women in prison movies – rape has essentially no effect. It is simply an excuse to get the leads naked, and is forgotten by the next scene. In other movies – including many serious prison dramas such as American History X and American Me – rape is used essentially as nothing more than a plot device, to prompt the main character either to action or reflection. In still other prison movies, rape is secondary to the plot, just a way of demonstrating how difficult hard time can be. Has any movie ever successfully dealt with the issue of prison rape in way that makes both thematic and emotional sense? The fact is that there are only a small, small handful of movies that deal with rape honestly and realistically, and the percentage of prison movies able to do so is even smaller. Okay, so what is the point? In a way, Shawshank, by making Andy observed rather than central early on, bypasses the issue. The fact that he survives makes a statement to the other prisoners, but by not focusing closely on Andy at this point the movie avoids having to deal with his response, which is a smart choice given the fact that the movie would almost inevitably be unable to deal with Andy’s response in any satisfying way. I don’t know if the choice was conscious, but the movie seems to have a sense of its own limitations here – by acknowledging that Andy is an enigma, it is able to present his difficult entry into prison life as mysterious and intriguing without having to making a convincing presentation of Andy’s inner state.
Between Andy’s surprising character and Red’s by-turns funny and poignant narration, we easily overlook the barrage of cliches that assail us. After all, haven’t we seen these characters before: the brutal head guard (Captain Byron Hadley, played menacingly by Clancy Brown), the religious fanatic warden (Warden Norton, played by Bob Gunton) who ends up being the most corrupt of the bunch, the institutionalized lifer (Brooks, played by James Whitmore) who even takes care of a small animal (a crow in this case)? It is really a testimony to Freeman and Robbins that these weak characterizations don’t sink the movie. They don’t because we want to learn more about Andy and we genuinely grow to care about whether Red, in the end, will surrender to hopelessness or learn from Andy and seek to embrace life. Ugh, I can’t believe I just wrote that. I am going to totally undermine the carefully cultivated air of ironic detachment that I maintain throughout the site. But hell, that’s the way it is. This is a movie that can make a determined cynic like me write sentimental gibberish.
There are just so many well crafted and memorable scenes: The new fish arriving in prison, scared and brutalized. Like every other movie of this genre, we see the bus pulling up to the prison gates and the prisoners stripped and deloused. They get the usual “welcome to prison” speech, with the warden advising the prisoners to study the Bible, and with additional instruction from Hadley: “You eat when we say you eat. You s__t when we say you s__t. You p__s when we say you p__s.” We see the prisoners introduced into the prison population. Then, after lights-out, one of the lifers, Heywood (William Sadler) taunts a new, chubby prisoner until he breaks, to the amusement of all. And then the movie suddenly turns serious. Hadley pulls the new guy out of his cell, and beats the blubbering man unconscious. We later learn that the prisoner, who we only ever know as “Fat Ass” died during the night of his injuries. And suddenly we realize the movie is playing for keeps.
Andy’s first social breakthrough is equally memorable. He overhears Hadley complaining about the tax he will have to pay on a recent inheritance. Being a banker, Andy offers some advice to confound the IRS, although his opening line, “Do you trust your wife?” almost gets him thrown off a rooftop. He gets to make his pitch, and he earns cold beers for his fellow prisoners on the work detail, even though he does not drink himself. The scene closes with Andy savoring the moment, smiling to himself and sitting quietly in the shade.
There is the great scene where Andy plays opera over the prison loudspeaker. Having finally managed to get new books for the prison library, he finds that he’s also been sent a box of records. Again, we don’t quite know what is going through his mind, but there is a moment where Andy hesitates and then chooses to continue the stunt past the bounds of caution that is just played perfectly, and meshes beautifully with Red’s lyrical narration:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
There are other great scenes: The heartbreaking story of old Brooks on the outside, unable to adjust, moving inexorably toward the only possible conclusion. Toward then end, when the warden realizes he’s been played by Andy, who is now on his way to Mexico, we a get a moment of sudden realization that reminds me in a way of Col. Nicholson last thoughts in Bridge on the River Kwai. Red’s last parole hearing – after 40 years in prison – where he touchingly speaks about wanting to try to talk sense into himself as a 20 year old. To write this review, I watched the movie again and found that all of those scenes were still fresh in my mind even though I hadn’t seen the movie in at least five years before that.
And then there are a number of scenes that work, but really aren’t anything special. There is the scene where Bogs get his comeuppance at the hands of Hadley who has become Andy’s protector thanks to the tax advice. It is a testimony to Rolston’s powerful performance as Bogs the rapist that we actually feel a certain pleasure at seeing him brutally beaten by Hadley, even when we find out that he’s paralyzed as a result. But this plot development seems a little too convenient to me. Then there is an extended sequence where the warden announces a work-release program which suddenly turns him into the largest and most successful contractor in the county with his large pool of free labor. The building contracts lead to corruption and bribery, and Andy ends up being the one to manage the scheme to hide it from the authorities. Okay, and admittedly the movie is not about Warden Norton, but this all does seem out of character for a man who strikes us initially as harsh and closed-minded, but not necessarily venal. Andy and Red have an extended conversation about the details of the scheme that might as well be provided in expository text crawling along he bottom of the screen. These are not bad scenes, just not great either.
Alright, so why 4 Â½ rather than 5 manacles? The only real flaw in the movie is the whole subplot with Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows). Tommy is a young punk, sent to Shawshank on a 2 year term for breaking and entering. At first, he is basically comic relief – a dumb, funny kid. Andy takes him under his wing, teaches him to read, and helps him get his high school equivalency degree. Fine, good stuff. But it turns out the movie has more in store for this character. As he learns more about Andy, he realizes that he may hold the secret to Andy’s imprisonment. While in another prison, Tommy’s cellmate confessed to Tommy about killing a banker’s wife and her lover and pinning the blame on the banker. There are enough details to corroborate Andy’s claim that he is innocent.
Andy goes to the warden to ask for help getting a new trial, but the warden refuses because he does not want to risk allowing Andy to go free since Andy has inside knowledge of the warden’s corruption… so the warden has Tommy shot and killed. This whole subplot is just wrong, wrong, wrong. First of all, there is absolutely no reason to clarify whether Andy is really guilty or innocent. Indeed, it weakens the movie because it overly simplifies what should be a complex tale of guilt, hope, and yes redemption. Second, it turns the warden from an empty cliche into jarring caricature. I can accept that the warden slips into corruption despite his public displays of rectitude (or is it displays of public rectitude?), but cold blooded murder? I don’t buy it. Both the Norton and Hadley are played as brutal and often corrupt, but they inhabit a recognizable moral universe – albeit a harsh one – up until the point where they put four bullets into the back of a goofy kid. They are throwbacks to a time where prison officials believed that only force, used swiftly and without mercy, could maintain discipline. (And frankly, it isn’t clear to me that this philosophy is completely wrong, because the current “inmates running the asylum” approach definitely does not work.) Yes, they often shade into sadism, but it is rarely shown as being without any provocation – the prisoners are not routinely beaten for instance.
The ending also, after Andy has escaped, is perhaps too maudlin. Or maybe not. I go back and forth. It works, no question about it, and is a satisfying coda to the film. But it is also obviously manipulative, and while I have no real complaints here, I can certainly understand why the ending rubs some people the wrong way. A lot of people feel the same way about the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, but that leaves me in tears every year when I watch it, so maybe I am just a big sap. Anyway, the happy ending is consistent generally with the themes of the movie, so I am not willing to criticize.
What is the overall theme? Andy says it outright to Red, “Either get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” This is not a movie, essentially, about overcoming hardship – which is why it is not necessary to insist upon Andy’s innocence. It is a movie about owning up to one’s responsibilities and seeking out a better future. It is about hope, not just empty wishes. It is a movie, like American Beauty that reminds us that life is not a dress rehearsal, this is the big show, do something with it. That optimistic theme justifies the optimistic ending, and it is precisely this optimistic theme and optimistic ending that turns off many critics, schooled in post-modernist philosophy and techniques, for whom the only authentic emotions are despondency and despair.
Given these big themes, I won’t bother to question the likelihood of any group of inmates remaining together in the same prison in the same cells with the same guards and warden for a period of 20 years. I also won’t bother asking why the wall to Andy’s cell is so thick – imagine the size of the foundations if the wall of his cell is several feet thick on the second floor. I won’t bother to wonder about the oxygen content 250 yards into a 500 yard sewer pipe, or about how a man climbs out of a river at midnight in a thunderstorm and manages to walk into a bank dry and clean by 9am the next morning (sorry a plastic bag and bar of soap don’t explain it). I definitely won’t muse about the how difficult it would for Red to find that big oak. Almost all movies require some suspension of disbelief; unlike most, The Shawshank Redemption repays the faith its audiences places in it generously.
Summary: A beautifully acted, poetic movie, that grows on you and sticks with you after it is done. A definite must-see.