Archive for December 30th, 2007

The Thinker

Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Viewers at The Internet Movie Database have voted (as of today) the movie The Shawshank Redemption (1994) as their second favorite, coming in right after The Godfather. Viewers gave it a rating of 9.1 out of 10 stars with over 297,000 votes cast. My sister also gave the movie a top rating of five Netflix stars so I also Netflixed it and watched it over my languid holiday recess.

While I am not sure I would put the movie in my all time top ten films, it is a great film. It is curious though that it did not make a bigger splash at the box office. Perhaps the competition overwhelmed it. It was nominated for seven academy awards, including Best Picture. However, it was beaten by two other worthy cinematic juggernauts that year, principally Forrest Gump, but also Pulp Fiction. So the movie ended up with many nominations but no actual Academy Awards. Moreover, its box office take was mediocre. It was also saddled with a title that was uninspiring and a bleak story that takes place almost entirely within a prison.

Hollywood’s judgments though do not always reflect history’s judgments. Gone with the Wind won Best Picture in 1940. While lavish, its acting left much to be desired. Mention movies of 1939 and only one is indelibly imprinted on our brain: The Wizard of Oz. At the 1986 Academy Awards, The Color Purple was obviously the people’s choice, but Robert Redford’s Out of Africa won instead. Who today remembers Out of Africa? If you have seen The Color Purple, however, you cannot possibly forget it. In 1995, Hollywood can be forgiven for voting the irresistible Forrest Gump over The Shawshank Redemption. Yet among IMDB viewers, Forrest Gump pulls a relatively anemic 8.4 out of 10 stars.

As you can infer from its title, The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about redemption. Mainly it is about the ability of a human being to keep hope alive where hope should be impossible. An incredibly youthful looking Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, who was wrongly convicted for murdering his cheating wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to two life sentences to be carried out at the depressing Shawshank Prison in Maine. The movie covers a span of about twenty years, beginning with Andy’s imprisonment in the late 1940s. Apparently, prison life back then was at least as wretched as it is today, with periodic gang rapes generally overlooked by the warden and its guards, who were also inclined toward needless brutality. It is a world entirely removed from Andy’s experience as a banker. Moreover, he is a mental giant among a prison full of pygmies. With no possibility of parole and seemingly no possibility of escape, it is hard to imagine how anyone would escape utter despair. Shawshank Prison is an incredibly bleak and hellish place that seems to have been around in perpetuity.

Andy happens to be assigned to a cell next to “Red” Redding, a long time convict played by Morgan Freeman. Red excels at facilitating the smuggling of items from outside the prison. Red, a convicted murderer himself, seems to have softened from more than two decades in prison. He finds himself unexpectedly liking Andy. Most baffling of all to Red is Andy’s dogged sense of hope where no hope exists. In time, Andy will manufacture his own sense of hope. He assumes the role of prison librarian. By sending weekly letters to the legislature, he eventually gets an allocation of new books for the prison library. When his talent for bookkeeping is discovered, he starts helping the guards do their taxes. He eventually comes to the attention of Warden Norton, chillingly played by Bob Gunton. He also tutors convicts, allowing many to earn their GEDs. Still, there is no possibility of parole for Andy, so his actions, though they keep his mind engaged, cannot earn him release.

Shawshank Prison is depicted as a place where time stands still. Decades pass in a sense of utter hopelessness and helplessness. Yet still, Andy hangs on to an unreasonable hope that he will not always be a prisoner. Instead, he becomes increasingly a victim of his own success. He is caught up in the financial schemes of Warden Norton, who uses prisoners to do public works projects for rates that underbid the salaried competition. Since Andy knows too much, it becomes important to make sure that he stays incommunicado with the rest of the world. Yet throughout his long imprisonment, Andy maintains his innocence.

I will let you discover how Andy manages to redeem himself by renting the movie. I can say that The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite kind of movie: relentlessly character driven and embraced by a powerful human story that speaks for itself. It needs no fancy special effects to make it appear better than it is. Both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman give remarkable and memorable performances. Nonetheless, the prison is full of character actors so flawlessly rendered that the story feels entirely authentic. The movie is based on a novella by Stephen King and is directed by Frank Darabont. Darabont also directed The Green Mile (1999) starring Tom Hanks, which like The Shawshank Redemption was also nominated for Best Picture. (It lost to American Beauty.)

The depicted prison violence is quite graphic, so the movie deserved its R rating. Still, this genre has been plumbed periodically before, from movies like The Great Escape to Papillion. Neither of these movies though is quite as good or as moving as The Shawshank Redemption. Providing you can stomach the violence as compensation for a terrific story and a satisfying ending, you will find the movie memorable. I can think of movies I have seen that I thought were even better (Children of Men comes to mind), but few movies achieve this lofty level. Being a picky rater, very few movies that I rate merit a 3.5 or above. The Shawshank Redemption has earned my 3.5 rating.

I did find a few inconsistencies. If you have seen the movie, keep reading. If you have not, read no further as it contains spoilers.

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