When I saw The Shawshank Redemption in high school, it was one of the movies (along with, believe it or not, The 40 Year Old Virgin) that convinced me that movies could tell stories on a more profound level than simple entertainment.
Shawshank has a little bit of a strange backstory. It was a pretty big flop on its release. Though it received good reviews, plus an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it was never a runaway critical darling or zeitgeist touchstone the way Pulp Fiction or Forrest Gump of the same year was.
But, since then, it’s made a groundswell movement to become one of the most beloved films of the past 25 years. As of this writing, it sits atop the IMDb Top 250 – though that’s due in part to the down-voting of The Godfather, former #1, that happened in 2010 when Batman fans wanted The Dark Knight to land at #1.
Shawshank has become an icon for bummed out teens and twenty-somethings hoping that the “shit-smelling foulness” of life can really get better through sheer power of will and perseverance. (In that way, it’s a distinctly American, capitalistic movie – Andy Dufresne must make his own path despite his bad draw, as must we all.)
The story covers a decade of Andy Dufresne’s life behind bars, beginning with his sentence to a maximum security prison for the murders of a cheating wife and her lover that he may or may not have committed. The plot is largely about how Andy slowly adapts to the crappy, unfair prison setting.
Andy’s everyday, quiet demeanor – he spends his break time outside walking around in solitude rather than playing macho games to try and earn respect – makes him both mysterious and relatable. We never know for sure what his next move is until we see it, yet we empathize with his crappy draw.
Narrating Andy’s story is Morgan Freeman as Red, a prison lifer who prays for parole. Red begins a skeptical observer of Andy, the becomes a friend, then a spiritual convert as Andy comes to embody hope.
I don’t want to say much more about the story except that I HIGHLY recommend you give it a go without reading any more (don’t spoil yourself), even if prison dramas aren’t normally your thing. This is more a parable about the importance of hope and willpower than it is a typical drama. It’s based off of a Stephen King short story.
I’ll also say that the ending is one of my favorites in all of movies, both on a plot level and on message level. I’ve read some complaints that it ties up too cleanly. Maybe. But, again, for a movie about the power and payoff of hope, an ambiguous ending just wouldn’t fit.
The acting is great all around. Freeman and Tim Robbins as Andy turn in the most memorable performances, but it’s hard to find a weak point.
The production is stunning, too, capturing a stark, beige-colored 1940s prison, with a few set pieces providing great contrast. Director Frank Darabont does an admirable, low-key job, eschewing visual shock value in favor of muted observation.
My biggest complaint with the movie is the chief antagonist. The prison warden’s characterization proves a bit flat on repeated watching. The script never derives any empathy or humanity for the self-serving, autocratic ruler of the prsion. His fearsome, brutish henchmen do little to color out the cast of villains.
But even if the warden is a bit cartoonish, he provides a memorable villain and a good symbolic opposition – greedy, selfish, rich, cruel, corrupt, bad boss – for a movie full of American spirit.
There’s so much to love about Shawshank. My favorite individual component would have to be the script, even moreso than the acting and direction. Along with the great story that sucks you in from the first minute, it’s full of great turns of phrase and memorable lines. The two most famous quotes are rightfully “get busy living or get busy dying” and Red’s fantastic closing monologue (“I hope.”), but there are a bunch of good ones all the way throughout the film. I’ve always loved Red’s description of the opera music that Andy blasts over the loudspeaker. I’m also partial to the phrase “the colossal prick even managed to seem magnanimous” – such music in thoses words.
One of my favorite scenes. “I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.”
But, really, Shawshank is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a spiritual experience, a gospel of hope. If Andy can survive those awful first two years and completely transform the prison he inhabits the following eight years, what the hell are the rest of us doing?
“Get busy living or get busy dying. That’s goddamn right.”