Director: Frank Darabont
Writers: Stephen King (short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”), Frank Darabont (screenplay)
Stars: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, Mark Rolston, James Whitmore
What can you say about a film nearly every single person on the planet has seen? This film in particular is so universally loved by such a massive proportion of the population that memes have exploded on the internet of people kidding on they’ve never seen it before. The Shawshank Redemption is easily within my top five films of all-time and everything about it just seems to marry together to create cinematic magic.
It’s adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same (or similar) name, which unsurprisingly, I haven’t read. I don’t know if Frank Darabont did the novel justice, few films do that great mans literary genius justice, but regardless, it’s a standalone masterpiece of its own. It follows Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker that’s wrongly convicted and imprisoned for murdering his cheating wife. The majority of the film unfolds at Shawshank Prison under the watch of corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) and his murderous, right hand man, Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown).
There’s a real plethora of interesting themes explored throughout the 142 minute running time. Most notably, friendship, the indomitable nature of human spirit in face of adversity, the institutionalisation of long term convicts and last but not least redemption. There’s three men, two of particular importance, who are embroiled in a desire to gain that very thing.
Andy, Red (Morgan Freeman) and Brooks (James Whitmore) being the very chaps. Brooks’ arc is a tragic, heartbreaking one. An elderly inmate, that ran the library and spent nearly the entirety of his life inside, he just couldn’t cope with the hustle and bustle of ‘modern’ life. He was useful in Shawshank, he had a purpose that was gone the moment he left. Brooks was unable to overcome his institutional life and obtain the redemption he deserved. His final moments never fail to bring out the emotion or give me a lump in my throat, despite having seen this film dozens of times, I still will him to integrate and find happiness to no avail.
Then you have Mr. Dufresne. Andy never gives up hope throughout the entirety of the film, despite his wrongful imprisonment and the series of horrific situations he must face. Most notably, the constant harassment by the sisters, a group of homosexual predators, to having the hope of being exonerated ripped away from him by the nefarious Norton, who murders Tommy (Gil Bellows), a young man ready to testify to his innocence. Andy had mentored and educated the troubled inmate and his death is the pivotal moment in the latter’s journey to freedom and personal redemption.
The ‘you were right Warden, salvation lies within’ moment and the entire sequence that unfolds prior to and after that are perhaps my favourites in the film. The combination of Hadley and Norton getting a swift dose of karma, whilst seeing Andy walk away a free man, with a new identity, created under the nose of the former is the sweetest thing. They also feature two of my favourites pieces of music ‘And That Right Soon’ and ‘His Judgement Cometh’.
That leaves Red, the man who can get things, at a crossroads in his life with a decision to make. Should he get busy living or get busy dying? His journey is my personal favourite. He goes from being resigned to his fate, which would see him locked up ad infinitum and constantly being rejected for parole, from being an institutionalised man like Red to meeting and befriending Andy. The latter imbues him with hope and a dream of looking upon the beautiful blue tones of the Pacific. His journey echoes Brooks’ before him. He does the same job, stays in the room, carves his name in the same spot but he chooses a different path, heading down to Zihuatanejo to reunite with his old friend.
Interestingly, the symmetry of the two men doesn’t end there. The two themes ‘Brooks Was Here’ and ‘So Was Red’ play out like a yang and yang beyond the parameters of the film itself. Red is the living embodiment of every theme explored in the film. You can argue the redemption in the title is about Andy and Red, because it is, both leave an indelible mark on each other’s psyche. I’ve always believed it relates more to the latter’s journey however of regaining a renewed zest for life and reason to reintegrate into the outside world.
But there’s plenty more happening in this film away from the whole redemption main arc. I think it’s the combination of real interesting background characters and side stories, interspersed with the main arc that make this great film what it is. It gives the story, the prison and the people within a layer of authenticity. It makes the world feel lived in, which in turn, makes it infinitely easier to connect with what you’re seeing. Watching the Shawshank Redemption feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers or that sensation of taking a warm bath in a cold and wet wintery night. Something about it just connects with me, makes me happy inside and I believe it’s a combination of the likeable characters and just the feel of it all.
From the corruption within the prison and Norton embezzling the state; the Sisters side arc that culminates in Bogs (Mark Rolston) being savagely beaten (another favourite); the hunt for rocks to be shaped into chess pieces; the general hilarity and camaraderie between the inmates; anything involving Heywood (William Sadler), who’s a fantastic, standout peripheral character and Andy’s one man mission to expand the library that leads to ‘Marriage of Figaro’ blaring out of the prison tannoy, which is just another incredible and iconic moment. For the briefest of moments, he brings a sense of freedom and hope to everyone. Speaking of which, who could forget that roof tarring, beer scene?
I can’t discuss this film and not mention Thomas Newman’s score. It’s beautifully emotive in parts and stirringly powerful in others. Without his perfect score, the film would be greatly and irreparably diminished. I usually try my best to highlight a favourite theme but there’s honestly so many that it’s nigh on impossible. I mentioned a few earlier, but to ignore ‘So Was Red’ and ‘Shawshank Prison’ would be akin to sacrilege, but then you’ve got ‘May’ and ‘Workfield’ with their infectious country style string arrangements that are so distinctive in their own way and lighten the often somber feel of the others.
There’s just something about the truly great film composers that make them standout immediately, they have their own sound. You can immediately identify an Alan Silvestri, a Hans Zimmer or John Williams film and Newman is the very same.
Speaking of great, Roger Deakins was the cinematographer and you know what you’re getting when he’s involved. I said that everything seems to marry together to make cinematic magic and the visuals are a massive part of that. The final shots of the stunning Pacific, the wide shots of the prison as Andy crawls out the sewage pipe to that amazing flyover opener are few examples of the mans brilliance. It’s a travesty that he had to wait over forty years for an Oscar win, but not even I could argue over Janusz Kamiński’s win for Schindler’s List in 1994.
There’s not many films in existence that I’ve seen over twenty to thirty times, but ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is one of them. It’s perfection to me. The only minor criticism I have is the modern car that was caught in the driveway at the end and even then that’s now a much beloved easter egg. There’s a good half dozen performances that I would deem to be excellent, the visuals and score are up there with the best, Frank Farabont’s direction is fantastic and it never fails to mesmerise me every time it pops up on the TV.
If you haven’t seen this film then you’re either an alien, under the age of five or from a part of the world that is still to be acquainted with its brilliance. If it’s the latter then do yourself a favour and get it watched immediately.