SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this film, it truly is one of my all-time favorites. I highly recommend it! As with any film, I think the best experience is to watch it first and then engage thoughtful reviews of it. I have attempted to give a thoughtful review here, and I encourage you to come back here and join the discussion once you’ve seen the film. As always, I include a note at the end of each review about the film’s content in case you’d like to review that before seeing a film. In that case, scroll down to the end of this review for the quick note on content.
There are some films that you simply cannot stop watching once they’ve begun. Whether you’ve popped in the DVD, or you happened upon it while scrolling through TV channels, a film like this is near and dear to your heart. For me, The Shawshank Redemption falls into that lofty category.
This has become a mainstay on recent lists of great films, and it has reached the point where I think it is almost taken for granted. Saying you like Shawshank is like saying you like The Beatles. Sure, it’s great, but it may not be the most trendy pick.
It was against this backdrop that I recently revisited this modern classic. The film was released in 1994, just two years after I was born. It was nominated for Best Picture that year, losing to Forrest Gump. Even so, it did not perform well at the box office, and it was not until later years that it acheived its lofty status as a commonly-cited classic.
For me, the greatness of this film begins with its writing, but it certainly doesn’t end there. The film was written and directed by Frank Darabont, and the screenplay was adapted from a novella by Stephen King. Clearly the writing pedigree is top notch. The story is captivating, but the characters in this film are truly what sets the writing apart. These characters feel like real human beings. We feel for them. There is a great natural sense to how the characters are developed throughout the film - whether it’s a main character or a seemingly smaller one. And, as good as the writing is, those characters would not come to life without the incredible performances that populate this film.
The first character we meet is Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). He is a young banker convicted of murdering his estranged wife after finding out about her infidelity. He maintains that he did not commit the crime, but the evidence seemse to say otherwise. He is sentenced to two consecutive life sentencens at Shawshank Prison.
We then meet Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who has already served 20 years at Shawshank for murder. He is up for parole, and he is once again denied. Red is the guy who can get you whatever you need inside the prison walls. He has the connections outside to get you cigarettes or, in Andy’s case, a rock hammer. Andy liked carving rocks in his former life, and he still wants to be able to do his hobby in prison. He and Red become fast friends, and they deal with the harshness of prison life together.
The innocent man wrongfully accused is one of the oldest storylines we have. The great Alfred Hitchcock used the plot device many times to great effect. This film may be my favorite example of the storyline. No, Andy did not really commit the murder. I don’t find that to be a spoiler, as the film is quite upfront about that fact itself. You must know that. Then you start to consider what you might do if you were innocent and you found yourself faced with the prospect of prison for the remainder of your life. How would you live? How would you hold on to any sliver of hope?
Andy does live, and he does hold on to hope. He finds hope in the friendships he builds inside of Shawshank. That may sound cliched, and in a lesser film it might be. But the execution of this storyline is so skilled and the characters so engaging, that we believe it. Two of those friends, especially - Heywood (William Sadler) and Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) - have key storylines in the film. They are a great example of how this film invests so much in even its side characters. There is one scene in this film that revolves around Brooks that moves me every time I see it. It’s amazing to me that a film would invest that much in a character that isn’t necessarily directly tied to our main characters or even the main plot.
But that points to another great aspect of this film - its main plot may not be what you think it is at first.
Ever since it is revealed that Andy is innocent, our main focus rests on how he might find justice. The film coaxes us in that way through discussions Andy has with other inmates, particularly one discussion with the young Tommy (Gil Bellows) after Andy has been in Shawshank for nearly 20 years. This is joined by many other scenes you might expect in a prison film that depict the harshness of the life that Andy has been dealt. We ache for Andy, because we know he doesn’t deserve this. Yet we are awed by his seeming indifference to that ache himself.
Here I must pause to commend the lead performances by Robbins and Freeman. They create two of the most memorable characters in recent movie history. It is a beautiful collaboration between the writing and the performances. Freeman’s voice is legendary in its own right, and his narration is a foundational element to the film. Robbins must take a nuanced approach to his character and showcase the changes that happen in his personality over the course of many years in prison. There are key ways, however, that Andy does not change, and Robbins embodies these characteristics artfully.
The villain roles are also memorable - especially Bob Gunton as the self-righteous Warden Norton. He is supported by Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), and the two prison officers take part in some of the film’s most iconic scenes. Warden Norton thinks he is better than the inmates he sees every day, but we soon find out that he is no better than the worst of them.
Another collaborator on the film who must be mentioned is cinematographer Roger Deakins. He has since become one of the most famous cinematographers in film history, and his work on this film is nothing short of iconic. There are shots in this film that have become embedded in cinema lore. You’ve surely seen, for instance, the shot of Andy with is hands raised in the rain even if you’ve never seen the full film and you have no context for its meaning. Once you do see the film, those shots take on whole layers of meaning, and they are a testament to the peerless talents of Mr. Deakins.
It is the film’s passionate ending that wows me more than any other element. For most films of this type, a prison story about an innocent man would end once we find out whether or not the hero finds justice. Shawshank gives us that answer, but the film does not end there. The scene where we are given this answer is an incredible scene from a narrative standpoint and from the ways it builds upon the character development for Andy that has been slowly happening before our eyes. But the film continues after Andy finds his form of justice, and I think it reaches another level of transcendence for doing so.
That’s because this isn’t really a prison film. What I mean by that is that the film is not mainly about Shawshank prison - the setting for a large majority of the film’s runtime. I think it would be more correct to say this film is about a larger sense of the word “prison.” We don’t have to be confined in a penitentiary to be in prison. How then do we break out of those chains?
It is the answer to that question that I think truly gets to the heart of The Shawshank Redemption. This is a film about the soaring impact of the relationships that free us from the prison of life. As the film closes, we are given a beautiful culmination of the story of Andy and Red’s relationship. The note on which the film ends is simply one of the greatest closers in movie history.
Speaking of notes, this rousing ending and the entire film in general is supported by one of my all-time favorite film scores by the great Thomas Newman. The theme song and supporting songs are all beautiful, and it builds to the film’s wonderful crescendo of an ending.
There are so many fantastic collaborators who had a hand in this film, and they joined together to make an absolute classic. It will forever be a testament to the power of hope, and that is a worthy message, indeed.
NOTE ON CONTENT: Most of the film’s adult content comes in the form of profanity and violence. Beatings and shootings are shown. In my opinion, the most difficult scene is one that shows the aftermath of a suicide by hanging. The sexual content in the film is not overt, but is implied. This includes voiceover that makes it clear that Andy is raped by fellow inmates. There is also a scene depicting infidelity early on in the film.