|Shawshank Redemption, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 December 1999|
It's mystifying that Warners Home Video didn't add more extras to the DVD of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Although the movie wasn't a hit theatrically, it has done well on video, got several Oscar notations, won awards of other kinds, and on video, gained something even better: it has become a genuinely beloved movie, often cited by regular moviegoers (presumably the DVD market) as their favorite film of all time. It's only logical, then, to have given this film special treatment in the hottest new video format. But as they did with the film theatrically, Warner Bros. has again dropped the ball.
It's good to have this film on DVD, of course, and the "authoring" is excellent -- the film looks great, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack will make any home sound system hum with joy. But so much more could have been done; this DVD release could have been something very special, with cut scenes, production drawings, notes by Darabont on how he adapted Stephen King's novella, narration tracks, etc. etc. This movie deeply deserved such treatment.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was one of the best films of 1994, and firmly established Darabont --- making his feature debut as a director -- as one of the most promising directors in Hollywood. It's careful, thoughtful, intelligent moviemaking. The story itself has a certain pat quality, but Darabont concentrates on performances, the rhythms of prison life (and of the movie itself), and on the themes of this tale of friendship, hope and despair.
Maine, 1946. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a quiet young banker, is given two consecutive life terms for the murders of his philandering wife and her lover. He claims he's innocent, and we didn't see him commit the crimes; Andy's guilt or innocence is not a crucial issue at this point -- though his being denied justice is.
At first, Andy keeps pretty much to himself in prison, but forms a friendship with long-term prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman), the kind of guy who can get just about anything you really want. Andy approaches him for a rock hammer, a small tool for chipping and shaping rocks, and certainly far too small to tunnel out of Shawshank. Red's amused by Andy's easy manner; "Yes," Red says in his occasional narration, "I guess you could say I liked Andy right off."
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a deliberately paced movie, and it's 142 minutes long; there's no strong narrative drive on the surface -- it's episodic, covering a period from 1946 until the mid-1960s.
Darabont doesn't make it emphatic or even obvious (until the last fifteen minutes, when it needs to be obvious), but the core idea here is the absolute necessity of never giving up hope. Every incident in the film reflects the theme, from the brutal attacks of the "bull queers," to Andy's establishment of a good prison library, to helping cocky young prisoner Tommy (Gil Bellows) even to shady financial arrangements the corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) forces Andy to arrange. The concept that even under the worst of circumstances, there's still room for a wishing star, for hope, for the possibility of redemption, runs through the movie like a shining thread.
The movie does not glorify prisoners or their crimes, though in terms of the film, exactly what each of them did is irrelevant: they're all equal now. Prison movies are crucibles, boiling things down, distilling an essence and examining it closely. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is more than this, because it never takes the fact of prison as a given, the way a lot of prison films do. We never forget that the cast is confined, and confined behind high gray walls and old steel bars.
Morgan Freeman casually dominates the screen with his warmth, wisdom and grace. It's a performance of small details and telling glances, a raised eyebrow, a half-grin, a worried look. And yet there is nothing whatever studied about this.
Although physically unlikely for the role of Andy, being so tall, Tim Robbins is fine in the role. Robbins is at his best at playing slightly remote men, though his performances often seem to lack a strong connection between Robbins and the role. That's true here as well; it's not a bad performance, but unlike Freeman, who becomes Red, Robbins only plays Andy.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins does exceptional work, especially considering that just about all he has to work with are grays, blues, blacks, and flesh tones. The film has almost a burnished feel; the colors, few though they are, are intense and rich. The score by Thomas Newman is also especially good; imaginatively, Newman frequently counter-scores scenes: he can use understated music, often just a piano, for the most intense scenes, but can also soar to the heavens at the right moment.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a long movie about a bunch of guys in prison, and there isn't even one riot. But it's a very fine film, moving, surprising, involving, with very good direction and outstanding performances -- but those weren't enough to make it a hit. Fortunately for Darabont and others, the practice of mailing "screeners" (videotapes) to Academy Members resulted in this almost-overlooked movie to begin its journey to the hearts of those who love it.
Note: Darabont's next movie as a director, THE GREEN MILE, was also based on a story by Stephen King, and also had a period setting, and was also set in a prison. And is also an outstanding movie.