Movie Review - The Shawshank Redemption
Moments resembling the very essence of freedom are spread ironically thick across The Shawshank Redemption, a film that seeks to capture both the good and the bad of a lifetime spent in prison, and, equally as much, how a sense of desperation can turn to insurmountable hope in spite of confinement.
A story adapted from the Stephen King novella, the not-so-gracefully titled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this Frank Darabont classic only became so after its release in 1994, and eventually found its place among the most celebrated films of all time. Through the narration of a convict called Red (Morgan Freeman), a man who’s spent the better part of his life behind the walls of Shawshank, we are given the story of another remarkable lifer named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), as quotable and equally iconic in his role.
Both are brilliantly realized from King’s initial story, both delivering lines lifted straight from the pages as to keep the film’s devotion to the source material natural while largely self-sufficient—in essence, the beauty of Shawshank doesn’t hinge on the merits of its origins. Of course, there are bits scattered throughout which have a greater levity if you understand where it is they’re coming from, though there’s nothing here to stop you from merely enjoying one or the other. The film is a lively depiction as much as it is a stand-alone piece.
As a prison narrative, The Shawshank Redemption is drab and provoking yet still heartfelt, at points casting its inmates in a demoralizing light while often making some feel right at home—the bleakness, for them, is on the outside. Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), the one they call institutionalized, is the prison librarian at Shawshank until he’s spit back out onto the streets where, as he puts it, everyone seems to move a whole lot faster; they speak louder, and cars cram up the city. This idea, the thought of being on the inside for so long that you’d be crippled by actual society, adds an entire emotional layer to the bulk of the plot and really helps to contrast some of the overarching ideals in the film.
Andy is a different breed of inmate, however. His retained sense of humanity rubs off on the other prisoners—Red especially, thinking himself to be institutionalized right alongside Brooks—and their eventual exchange near the end comes to affect Red’s entire outlook on life. This development, the progression of Red’s character as a result of Andy’s optimism, I think, is what carries the most weight in all of Shawshank.
In terms of the film’s more tangible elements—the obvious threat mostly existing in Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), the prison’s warden and almost implausibly nefarious—there’s a soundtrack that works to heighten even the littlest moments and an aiding cast, intimate and handled thoughtfully by Darabont. I do see the character of Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) a bit convenient for Andy’s sake, but, admittedly, we’d have no movie without him. As for Gunton’s persona, needless as it is, there’s something to be said for his performance and the sheer irony of his character.
Even so, typical story tendencies aside, The Shawshank Redemption is as much of an achievement in filmmaking as it is an ageless lesson—its message is deep and rooted in the perseverance of the human spirit, encompassing hope in every imaginable sense.