When I first saw The Shawshank Redemption, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It’s one of the more brutal films on my list, filled with the kind of profanity and savagery I tend to avoid. Yet, without the objectionable content, it is such a moving story and so powerfully told that I couldn’t help but join the myriad critics who have praised it.
As Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins has that “icy and remorseless” quality that makes Andy seem like the prime suspect for a double homicide, balanced with a detached intelligence and latent mischief only fully appreciated by his fellow inmates. Though Red was intended as a white character, Morgan Freeman makes the role his own with an Oscar-nominated performance and a candid and profound voice-over that marked him as the ultimate narrator. As released “lifer” Brooks, James Whitmore complements the film’s most poignant scene, a touching example of acting, music, and direction illustrating a sad and terminal point. Bob Gunson gets surprisingly dark as Warden Norton, forever making me hesitate to use the word “obtuse.” There’s something chilling about how he hums “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” after having murdered and manipulated to protect his money laundering, and he succeeds in creating one of the few religious villains who are clearly revealed and condemned as hypocrites without condemning the faith they obviously have not taken to heart. Also (the inevitable Lost alert), hard-core guard Byron Hadley is played by character and voice actor Clancy Brown, who appeared as Kelvin on my favorite show.
Despite the gloomy, callous atmosphere of the prison, the film boasts numerous scenes of beauty and hope which are able to balance out the dark elements. Sweeping overhead shots of the prison yard are contrasted with the confined prison quarters, and the use of repeated scenes (Norton stepping from the darkness, Brooks’s farewell, Andy’s end-of-night business routine) is employed brilliantly. Though I had been previously exposed to parodies of the climactic reveal (such as Hey Arnold: The Movie), it still was a surprise for me and remains a satisfying illustration of cinematic sleight of hand. Director Frank Darabont was definitely the right fit for adapting Stephen King’s novella, and he must have enjoyed the experience, later adapting other King books like The Green Mile and The Mist, though not quite with the same skill as his first Oscar nominee.
One probable reason that I so admire the film is that it is what I would consider a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” story. Though not typical of that subgenre since Andy and Red remain static for the most part, the way in which various characters float in and out of their lives (abusive Bogs, institutionalized Brooks, tragic Tommy) is not unlike other members of the genre. Plus, all such films are marked by some kind of potentially tear-inducing consummation or reunion, and this is no exception. Despite much foul language, the film is an exquisite paean to hope, which will live on as a modern classic, because “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Best line: (Red, when Andy is playing a snatch of opera for the inmates) “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.” (For the record, they were actually singing about revealing a man’s love affair.)Rank: 60 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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