Directed by Frank Darabont
Reviewed by Adam, added on Jan 1 2005
"Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free" is the tag-line of "The Shawshank Redemption," a film based on a novella by Stephen King. Never before has a tag-line explained the heart and soul of a film more poignantly.
"The Shawshank Redemption" tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a young Maine banker sent to prison on two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Andy, on the outside, isn't the sort of man that can survive in prison; thus is the first impression of Otis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), the man that can get you most anything on in the inside. Red is soon proven wrong, and the two become fast friends, enduring years of injustice under the reign of Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton). Andy eventually finds a way to ease life for Red and his other inmate friends, builds a better library, and helps many men to achieve their high school equivalency. A chance to prove Andy's innocence arises and is quickly squashed by Warden Norton, which leaves Andy one last resort: get busy living, or get busy dying.
"The Shawshank Redemption" is, without a doubt, one of the finest films ever made. It has a primal, visceral power, with a kind and golden heart at it's core. It is a tale of hope surviving in the most hopeless of situations; a story of perseverance in the face of seemingly unsurmountable tribulation. There are few prison films that achieve this level of emotional triumph; in fact, I'd venture to say there are none. In fact, there are very few films - period - that can say they've moved their audiences in such a way as "The Shawshank Redemption."
Tim Robbins as Andy is one of the most underappreciated performances in film history. His Andy has a quiet, reserved exterior; but inside, there is a well of strength few of us would know how to handle. To see Andy evolve from the defeated, cold-hearted man that first came to Shawshank, into a man filled with hope and resolve, is just astounding. Robbins was (oh boy, a rhyme of sorts) robbed at the 1995 Oscars. He made Andy not only believable, but incredibly sympathetic - what more could you want from a performance?
Morgan Freeman is fantastic as the nearly-institutionalized Red; a man who, on the inside, can get you whatever your heart desires; but what about the outside? Red fears life on the outside, simply because things on the inside make sense (and would to you, too, if you spent nearly four decades in prison). It is Red's ability to eventually venture beyond the walls of Shawshank State Prison into the free world that is the titular "redemption." Freeman instills in Red a nobility, a sense of honor that elevates him above a mere convict. We see the story through Red's eyes; because of this, we are never too attached to Andy (which is a good way of avoiding the cliched hero's journey of most films), but we do revel in Red's own journey. Red's final line - the last line of the film, in fact - makes me cry every single time. What can I say - simply put, it's a great performance, brilliantly informed by a wonderful actor.
The rest of the cast are equally wonderful, especially Bob Gunton as the insidious Warden Norton. When Norton meets his end (I won't spoil that too much, of course), I actually cheered out loud. William Sadler as Heywood is a bloody hoot, as is Gil Bellows as the roughneck rock'n'roller Tommy Williams. James Whitmore weighs in with a strong, relaxed (and ultimately tragic) performance as prison librarian Brooks Hatlen. There are far too few films with such an all-around wonderful cast. Just thinking about them all makes me want to watch the movie yet again, right this minute...
Everything else - the cinematography, the score, even the editing - is outstanding. My hat is off to cinematographer Roger Deakins for the scene in which Andy plays an aria from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" to the prisoners of Shawshank - it is simply breathtaking. Everything fits together so well, it is hard to believe at times. I truly believe "The Shawshank Redemption" is as close to a perfect film as any filmmaker and his/her crew can come. Writer/director Frank Darabont made a brilliant directorial debut film with "The Shawshank Redemption," and of course succeeded in adapting Stephen King's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" brilliantly in the process. Darabont would go on to make great King adaptation, "The Green Mile;" but it is "The Shawshank Redemption" that stands as his crowning achievement. Darabont crafted a masterpiece, full of great performances, beautiful cinematography, and an outstanding score.
"The Shawshank Redemption" is now available in a two-disc special edition DVD, featuring documentaries, an audio commentary from Frank Darabont, and much more. I highly suggest you pick this DVD up as soon as possible. Forget about all of the other recommendations I've made in the past; this is the one film you simply HAVE to see. Come on - Roger Ebert originally gave the film three and a half stars; now, he's updated his score to a full four stars. How many films have that kind of lasting power? Give "The Shawshank Redemption" a chance - it isn't just a movie; it is an experience, which will stay with you for all time.