The Shawshank Redemption, a movie that barely recovered its budget in theaters but has become a ridiculously popular movie in the 20 years since its release. How good is it? On the IMDB Top 250 (of all-time), it's currently rocking the No. 1 ranking...of All-Time. Not the most scientific voting, but still...
It's 1947 when banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of murdering his wife and the man she was having an affair with. Andy maintains his innocence but the evidence is overwhelmingly against him, and he receives consecutive life sentences as a verdict. He is sent to Shawshank Prison near Portland, Maine and settles into prison life as best he can. More than that, he just wants to survive. Days to weeks, weeks to months, months to years, Andy becomes close friends with a fellow prisoner, Red (Morgan Freeman), who is similarly serving a sentence for murder. Prison life is one step above hell itself, Andy carving out a niche for himself as best he can. Will it ultimately prove to be too much? Will it wear Andy down over the years? Can he somehow prove his innocence when on one else believes him and the evidence against him seems like a sure thing? In prison with life sentences on the line, only time will tell.
What a difficult movie to review in a somewhat concise plot synopsis. I tried to build this movie up to someone recently who had never seen it, and without giving too much away....well, let's just say it proved difficult. It's difficult, but it's for good reason. In the 20 years since 'Redemption' was released, it has gained quite the positive reputation, director Frank Darabont also adapting a screenplay from a short story by acclaimed author Stephen King. For about three years in the early 2000s, AMC and TNT and TBS seemed to show this movie EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND, and I probably watched it every other weekend or so. It had been years since I'd seen the movie straight through in one sitting, and not surprisingly, it holds up one basically all levels. Who knows how it will be remembered in years to come. Will it be a classic? A highly-regarded film? Maybe both, but for me, it's a personal favorite.
As I prepare to write some reviews, I try to identify some flaws, if I haven't already from during the viewing. So those flaws here....yeah, there aren't any. This is one of those perfect movies you can sit back and appreciate on any number of levels. The biggest strength is the story, a dark, unsettling story that is able to blend drama and comedy and even elements of horror effortlessly. The look of the movie reflects the story, colors washed out to pale shades of blue and grey, the Ohio State Reformatory serving as the backdrop for Shawshank. The immense prison walls tower over the prisoners, its hallways holding all kinds of hellish horrors. Another of the movie's strongest features is the soundtrack from Thomas Newman, my personal favorite score from an excellent composer. Listen to the entire soundtrack HERE, music equal parts emotional and moving with unsettling and uncomfortable.
Above all else, this movie rides on the shoulders of its stars, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Talk about an effortless chemistry. These two pros make it look downright easy. This isn't acting, just two very talented actors doing their thing. Natural doesn't begin to describe the power of their performances, the relationship between Andy and Red developing into a genuine friendship as the years pass. Their conversations crackle, two men talking because, well, because there's plenty of time to talk in prison. They talk about life, about their pasts, their likes and dislikes, but bigger things too. Andy and Red talk about hope -- check that, Hope -- and dreams, about something bigger, about finding your spot and persevering no matter what's thrown in front of you. I can't think of other films where Robbins and Freeman were better than this. Two great actors bringing two flawed, fascinating characters to life.
Who else to look for? How about evil personified as Shawshank's warden (Bob Gunton) and his lead guard and enforcer Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), two of the most evil, despicable villains ever. James Whitmore, 73 years old at the time and having worked in Hollywood since the late 1940s, is a scene-stealer as Brooks, an aging prisoner who's become institutionalized as his sentence runs into its fifth decade. Other prisoners include William Salder as Haywood, an overbearing at times but generally likable inmate, with Larry Brandenburg, Neil Giuntoli, Brian Libby, Joseph Ragno and David Proval rounding out Red's clique of prisoners. Also look for Gil Bellows as Tommy, a young prisoner who comes to Shawshank in the mid 1960s with knowledge that could change Andy's life.
Maybe the biggest effect this movie has had on audiences is Morgan Freeman Narration Syndrome. Featuring one of the all-time great voiceover narrations, 'Shawshank' propelled Freeman into another stratosphere. It would be fun to listen to Freeman read a phone book. He's that good. The narration is what holds the movie together, almost 20 years of story packed into 142 minutes. There is a simple elegance to the narration, conversations about hope and fate, destiny and love, all of it giving a deeper sense of what's going on. It also features one of my all-time favorite movie lines, Red taking one of Andy's thoughts to heart. 'Get busy living or get busy dying....Damn right.' Just good stuff. Narration can be overdone, condescending, pretentious, but here? It's damn perfect.
There really isn't a weakness in this movie. Not a one. Now that said, the last 40 minutes or so is one of the strongest extended sequences in film history. This is a story that builds and builds, but you're not necessarily sure where. It doesn't drop hints so when a twist comes along, it genuinely shocks and surprises. One twist and surprise on top of each other -- all of them working effortlessly -- that don't feel forced. Thankfully, no 'Gotcha!' moments here. It leads to an ending that is beyond perfect. Moving, emotional and dramatic, including a beautiful final shot set to Newman's music. One of those great movies, a classic that gets better with repeated viewings. Sit back and enjoy it beginning to end.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994): ****/****