No. 24: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” ~~Red

Friends and acquaintances periodically ask how I can spend so many waking hours staring at movies on screens large and small. They want to know why I love films so much. When I have trouble forming an answer in words, I direct them to “The Shawshank Redemption.” Frank Darabont’s film says more — and speaks more poignantly — than I ever could on the subject. Put simply, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a motion picture that shows the unique ability of the cinema to transport us into worlds a far cry from our own and show us how we all feel the same pain, fear, determination, rage, hope. “The Shawshank Redemption” speaks to the fragility and the resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity to stockpile hope. This is why people see movies.

So much of the film’s power lies in the screenplay, deftly adapted by Darabont from Stephen King’s moving novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” and Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which evokes a very real and chilling desperation that seems to seep into our bones. Darabont takes great pains to preserve the unsentimental but hopeful spirit of King’s story, set in Shawshank Prison in Maine, but he takes some liberties with the plainspoken narrator, Otis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). King originally wrote Red as a 50-ish Irishman, but here Darabont relies on Freeman. Nothing is lost and so much is gained in this translation, for Freeman is an actor who radiates quiet dignity. His Red, “the guy who gets things,” is a cautious observer of prison life more than a participant, and after 30 years he’s done anticipating his release. “One day, when I have a long gray beard and two or three marbles rollin’ around upstairs, they’ll let me out,” he reasons. Red also doesn’t think much of newcomer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover; in fact, he refers to Andy as “that tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass.” Only Freeman could take that line and make it as astute as it is funny.

Red, as it turns out, and his cronies — Heywood (William Sadler), Floyd (Brian Libby) and Brooks (James Whitmore), a near-lifer dreading his approaching parole date — figured Andy all wrong. He’s tougher than he looks and he pulls some legendary stunts, like convincing Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), a cruel Bible thumper, to let him drastically expand the prison library, then locking himself in the warden’s office and blasting “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison speakers. Andy also forges a tentative friendship with Red, and their bond changes the shape of their lives: Red can’t pretend he’s still content marking time, and Andy can’t keep choking back the rage the rage his wrongful conviction and the warden’s shady dealings have left him with.

Bringing life to written words (specifically those written by Stephen King) necessitates a strong team of actors, and “The Shawshank Redemption” is not light on talent. Gunton hints at the insecurity behind Warden Norton’s tyrannical behavior, and Clancy Brown is fearsome as Captain Hadley, who delights in brutality and abuse. Darabont hand-picked Freeman for Red, claiming he was the best choice, and he’s right. Red requires a specific elegance, a mix of sardonic wisdom and world-weary humor that Freeman projects without effort. Though Robbins wasn’t the original pick for Andy, it’s impossible to imagine a better one. His role, too, is a delicate balance of simmering emotion, calm and cunning. Freeman deservedly received an Oscar nomination, but Robbins’ performance is the one that sneaks up on us, reminding us that dreams exist even when they’re forced into tiny, cold, walled-up cells.

There’s a moment, in fact, where we can see all this plain on Andy’s face. When he emerges from the hole, he tells Red of his dreams, of living in Mexico where the Pacific has no memory. As he talks, we see he’s not dejected but hopeful. More than that, he’s alive. Inside him is a resolve that the warden and Captain Hadley just can’t break, and there’s something beautiful and immensely uplifting about that.

About these ads

22 Responses

  1. That’s a great way of describing why I love movies too. Well written. I’m constantly amazed at how great this movie is. I watched it from start to finish the other day and enjoyed every minute.

    • “Shawshank” refuses to get old. I should know; I’ve seen it (I think) 32 times since 1994! Morgan Freeman is a national treasure.

  2. I’ve been meaning to see this forever. Perhaps I’ll pick it up at the library today.

    • You must, you must. I would say you’ll love it, but I have met a few people along and along who swear it’s overhyped.

  3. A must watch every time it’s on TV and one of my very favorite movie of all-time. It is such a satisfying ending because the built up of tension through the first three fourth of the movie.

    • I think 85% of my viewings of this have been from catching the first 10 minutes on television and getting sucked in for the whole thing.

      I have read a few criticisms slamming the ending as “totally improbable” or something like that. This tells me that a) the critics never read Stephen King’s novella, which the movie is mostly faithful to and b) these people have no imagination. Sheesh, I hope they don’t see “Avatar.”

  4. Couldn’t agree more, this film is very powerful, with some great performances. One of my faves.

    • Deserves every spot it gets on every “best movies” list and reminds me why I like Tim Robbins so much.

  5. Morgan Freeman is an actor I love even if I don’t always like his performance but he’s exceptional [along with Robbins] here. A beautiful film in every sense of the word.

    • The one thing I’ve seen him in where his performance felt totally fake and I did not buy him in the role was “The Contract” with John Cusack, one of those straight-to-DVD ventures where there’s no surprise why it went straight to DVD. But yeah, you’re right about him. He’s likable even when his character doesn’t blow you outta the water.

  6. Well done and well said. One of the messiest prison breaks portrayed on film. Maybe playing second fiddle to the “early release”of the Snoats Brothers in “Raising Arizona”.

  7. …speaking of prison dramas, I watched the Dustin Hoffman/Steve McQueen film Papillon recently. It’s a difficult film to watch – more true to the horrors of prison life than Shawshank – but the performances are second to none. A definite recommendation if you’re in the mood.

    Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory is a little more like Shawshank. That’s another good film.

  8. Oh and thank you for the blogroll add! I will do the same ;)

  9. This is my husband’s favorite.

  10. I watch a lot of movies, I do this because I love the medium of film. Yet, since I first saw it back in, jeez was it, yes it was, 1995, one film has maintained it’s spot at the top of my all-time best movies list and that movie is The Shawshank Redemption.

    I don’t want to say much, not only because your words were perfect, but also because I have so many thoughts on TSR that I have legitimately considered writing a book on it. But, I will say this, TSR is possibly the best example ever of simplicity that carries a deep complexity within its frame, and above all other reasons that may just be why it is my all time #1.

  11. What comment is the film The shawshank redemption making about power and its use and abuse?

    • That’s an excellent question — are you by chance an English teacher? Ha! Kidding. But you’d make a good one, asking questions like that.

      The moral of the story is probably something like “Abuse power and prepare to suffer the consequences” or “those who abuse power really feel, way deep down, totally powerless over their own lives.” But that’s pure speculation from a two-time English major nerd.

  12. there are very few talented actors that is as versatile as morgan freeman ,;;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers

%d bloggers like this: