The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

40 - The Shawshank Redemption

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

There have been a lot of news stories lately about Netflix hosting way less movies than they used to as they focus on their whole original titles thing, and a lot of classic movies have been taking a hit in their availability. It seems like a few years ago, there was a decent chance that any popular movie from the last few decades would be on Netflix in the United States or would at least be available sometime soon. Now it seems like you can’t look at Netflix like that anymore. You have to be pleasantly surprised when something popular pops up instead of just expecting it. They’ve also been cracking down on VPN usage, severely limiting the amount of titles I’ve been able to find in high quality. Anyway, Shawshank Redemption recently dropped on Netflix, and I don’t expect it will stay on for very long, so I gave it another watch.

Like most people, I’m a big fan of this movie. Those who spend a lot of time on IMDB will probably have strong feelings about its place as the highest rated movie on the website. It’s interesting because critics have liked this movie but never really put it towards the top of any list. I figure it’s because it’s a movie with a very populist appeal. I mean, look at other movies towards the top of IMDB: The Dark Knight, Fight Club, even Interstellar is up there. This may suggest a sort of demographic bias on IMDB, but I would say Shawshank’s place at the top is because it’s a hard movie to hate. When you let the masses vote on movies, there’s probably way more divisiveness over something like Citizen Kane or Vertigo, but everyone is going to toss praise at Shawshank Redemption.

Enough ramblings, I should talk about the movie. Based on the novella by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and his imprisonment following a wrongful murder conviction. The story is primarily told from the perspective of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a fellow inmate whom Andy befriends. I’ve always thought of the story as perfect, and the movie was already solidified as a classic while I was growing up, so I don’t think I understood how unique and engaging the concept was at first. Every scene in this movie has a beauty to it as we see these characters cling to hope. The writing is phenomenal, and nearly every inmate in the film has some sort of charm. You want to see these guys succeed, and the story really puts you on the side of the prisoners who are facing tremendous injustice. It’s not a complex story; it’s very watchable but so powerful at the same time. The first time I watched and didn’t know the ending, I was blown away by how it all wraps up and puts a smile on your face. Stephen King proves himself to be one of the greats in terms of storytelling, and director Frank Darabont preserves his vision perfectly.

If you asked me what Shawshank Redemption is primarily about, I would say its themes. There’s this constant collide between hope and despair, between freedom and containment, between justice and injustice. For whatever reason, Shawshank Redemption pushes through a lot of emotion without ever coming off as hokey or melodramatic. I think this is because the characters are so well written. You see Red in a state of conformity and resignation to his situation, but his spirit is kept alive by Andy, who refuses to give up hope. Andy is constantly setting other people free: though art by playing the music over the intercom, through literature by building the library, and through inspiration by his final act of redemption. This outsider, who you assume would have the most contempt for the system that wronged him, turns the whole prison on its head and finds a way to press on and inspire others. It’s a touching lesson that you truly can overcome any odds, and friendship can be instrumental in that respect.

The visuals are a textbook example of how to film a movie. You see both theme and characterization through the camerawork. In moments of literal or metaphorical freedom such as Andy’s final moments before imprisonment, when he plays music for the courtyard, and especially that famous final scene, the camera gives a wide birds-eye view that spans the whole landscape. In moments of containment, however, the shots are often tight or framed by something, such as crates, cell bars, or the warden’s safe. Visual metaphor is all over this movie, and it adds a beautiful atmosphere that improves the storytelling dramatically. It’s these little touches that I think push good films over the edge into greatness.

As far as the film being one of the greatest, I don’t see this label as something that’s as objectively clear as some other people might believe. I think Shawshank Redemption has very few flaws and essentially flawless execution, but it comes down to how much you can really get into the story and how much the film really stands out when compared to others. If I were to make a top 20, I don’t think Shawshank would near making the cut. It’s a film I love and admire, but it just doesn’t speak to me artistically in the way another film might. For one thing, I don’t think it takes enough risks to really impress me as an artistic work. It has beautiful thematic direction, but I think different films’ concepts end up speaking to me more, a film like American Beauty for example. This is really where “greatness” comes down to personal tastes. I think Shawshank is objectively a wonderful movie that most people love, but I also think most people wouldn’t call it their favorite. It doesn’t seem to take an artistic leap is the best way I could describe it. I don’t think it’s the kind of movie that needs to be daring or striking, but that’s just more what I’m into, so Shawshank doesn’t stick out for me overall.

By no means do I wish to undermine what a fantastic film The Shawshank Redemption proves itself to be. I’ve seen it countless times and will continue to watch it again and again. It’s simple, but it’s effective. Everything works together so well – the visuals, the sound, the actors, the script – and Darabont lays it all down in a beautiful, pure kind of way that will leave you smiling and filled with hope by the time those credits roll.


Films Left to Watch: 959

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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