Rating: R (language, prison violence)
Length: 142 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 14, 1994
Directed by: Frank Darabont
Stars: 4 out of 5
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne ( Tim Robbins ) arrives at the titular prison in 1947, having been convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Though the evidence was sketchy, the judge in the case felt that Andy was a cold fish and sent him to prison. When prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman) first spies him getting off the bus with the other new inmates, he too thinks that Andy is a cold fish and even bets that he will be the first to break down and cry during his first night at the foreboding prison. However, Red was wrong about Andy, which sets the stage for the rest of the film.
Andy has a sense of self worth that is not seen in any of his fellow inmates. Some of the other prisoners try to beat and rape him, but he holds his head high, even though it has bruises and lacerations. He quietly befriends Red and then all of Red’s motley crew of friends by extension. They form a formidable group that sticks together, even as Andy builds a library and begins to do the taxes of the warden (Bob Gunton) and all the guards. The fact that Andy brings so much change to the prison makes him something of a hero, especially when he manages to get a guard to bring free beer to the inmates after a hot day of manual labor.
Conflict and prison violence abound throughout the film, but the biggest conflict occurs when the warden orders the murder of an inmate who has information that proves Andy is innocent. Andy has not only been doing the warden’s taxes but also doctoring his books to hide money he is illicitly collecting for labor the inmates are doing in the local community. If Andy were to have a retrial, he could expose the warden and bring down his mini empire. When Andy is told what the warden did, he breaks emotionally, the first time he does so after serving half his life in prison. It seems like prison has finally gotten the best of Andy, unless he can set a plan he has long been plotting into motion without being caught. Pulling off the plan would mean freedom, while failing would mean certain death.
Robbins turns in such a fantastic performance that it is quite astounding that he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Chances are good that he would have lost to eventual winner Tom Hanks for “Forrest Gump,” but he deserved a nomination. His take on Andy is almost superhuman, making him a principled man who seemingly can’t be broken. When he does falter toward the end of the film, the audience feels like every single inmate at Shawshank will break with him if he wavers. Even if the film implied that Andy was guilty of murdering his wife, the audience would still want to root for him. That is not an easy feat to accomplish, but Robbins makes it look easy. Not to be outdone, Freeman delivers a great performance as Red, who also serves as the film’s narrator. His voiceover work is so eloquently done that it not only enhances his overall performance, it almost steals the show.
The screenplay was written by Frank Darabont, who based it on the novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. He adapts the material so well that he really transcends it, turning the film into a work of art. Many avid readers will claim the book is always better than the movie, but that is simply not the case here. King is a tremendous writer, but even he can’t shade and color the prison the way that Darabont does, which sets the mood for the entire film. The characters King created in the book are deeper and more well drawn in the film in large part because of Darabont’s script.
Many moviegoers turn their noses up at the thought of a movie about the triumph of the human spirit. However, even those jaded film fans will love “The Shawshank Redemption” because it sets a new standard for films in this genre. It is an unapologetically emotional and sometimes sentimental take on friendship and life, even when that life is spent in a cage, and will make viewers laugh, cry, and reflect on their own lives in ways that very few movies can. It may not have won a single Oscar, but it will win your heart, and perhaps that is more important.
Watch the trailer here!