Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 13, 2004)
From small things, mama, big things one day come! When The Shawshank
Redemption first hit movie screens in the fall of 1994, it received a rather underwhelming reaction. Audiences largely avoided it, as the film grossed less the $30 million. While it got good reviews, there wasn't a whole lot of enthusiasm over the picture.
10 years later, the movie has somehow metamorphosed into being regarded by many as a classic. Huh? How did that happened? To be honest, I'll be damned if I know.
I guess it must have been some form of popular groundswell. Shawshank first received significant attention in the winter of 1995 when it gained a decent number of Academy Award nominations. It lost out in all seven categories for which it was considered but definitely was one of those movies for which the nominations were a victory in themselves. After all, this was a small, quickly forgotten film; its Best Picture nomination came as a major surprise.
And somehow, the train kept on a-rolling until now, where you can go on IMBD and see that its readers have voted Shawshank as the second best film of all-time, behind only The Godfather. I don't know about you, but I find this to be absolutely amazing.
And absolutely off-base. Don't get me wrong: The Shawshank Redemption is an excellent film and is a topnotch production from start to finish. I'm one of those people who was taken by surprise by it. I love movies and I've gone to see more than my share of films I normally might have skipped just because the urge hit me. Some days I wanted to see a movie, and it didn't really matter which one.
Shawshank happened to be playing at a local bargain cinema when the urge hit, and since I'd already viewed all of the other selections, I gave it a look, though I wasn't excited about it. Much to my surprise, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable and even inspirational film. I'm normally not much of one for those "triumph of the human spirit" kind of movies; they tend to be hokey and melodramatic. That wasnít the case with Shawshank, as it managed to evoke the appropriate feelings in me. Although I wanted Pulp Fiction to capture the Best Picture Oscar, I wouldn't have minded at all if Shawshank had taken the prize. (Too bad Forrest Gump was the eventual victor.)
As much as I like Shawshank, for it to reign as anyone's fdfsdfdsf best movie of all-time is simply absurd. Hell, it wasn't even the best movie of 1994! (For the record, Pulp Fiction made number 15 with IMDB voters, and Forrest Gump doesn't show up until number 112; the other Best Picture nominees for 1994 - Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral" - didn't
make IMDB's top 250.) But I probably shouldn't waste time engaging in such debates; I'd rather talk about what makes Shawshank as special as it is.
That's actually a very good question. Overall, it's not a terribly original film. It's got an awful lot in common with all those other "triumph of the human spirit" movies - most of which star Robin Williams - and the story never goes beyond the limits imposed by that genre. In fact, it's usually quite predictable. I won't spill the beans, but one glimpse at some of the characters and you know exactly what their fates will be. It's like the new crewmembers on the Enterprise - those poor red-shirted bastards didn't stand a chance.
But the film ultimately is able to transcend the confines of its genre.
Much of the credit for this is due to the fine actors who play in it. Is it just me, or is there something wrong with a world in which Sally Field owns two Oscars for acting but Morgan Freeman possesses none? What a sad, silly joke that is. Freeman is at the top of his game here as Red, longtime inmate of Shawshank Prison. The role's not much of a stretch for Freeman - he's played similar parts in other films - but he still brings an extremely wide range to the occasion. No one can manifest quiet dignity and strength like Freeman, but he still makes all of his characters seem real and avoids the sanctimony of a Williams.
Tim Robbins is also excellent as Andy Dufresne, a man who's been imprisoned wrongfully but never gives up hope. No, that's not the most original character you'll ever see, but Robbins manages to keep him from becoming a clichť. It's the estimable chemistry between Robbins and Freeman that largely makes the film work; they're a strong duo.
First-time director Frank Darabont doesn't do anything terribly special in telling this tale, but he lets it unfold at a natural and appropriate pace and he maintains a fairly objective distance. Part of the pleasure of Shawshank stems from the lack of obvious sentiment or forced emotion. Darabont is able to restrain any "shove it down the audience's throat" tendencies that would mar many other films. He does a quiet but strong job of guiding the movie to its conclusion.
Actually, that conclusion is one of the few gripes I have about Shawshank, the other big one being the predictability of much of the movie. I won't give away what occurs, but I think that Darabont shows far too much of what happens to the characters at the end of the film. No, it didn't have to be an O. Henry story, but the picture simply spells out too clearly what happens. Some like that, but I would prefer to see something left to the imagination. I think the ending would resonate more strongly without such a literal conclusion.
Despite some missteps, The Shawshank Redemption remains a powerful and moving film. It shows a strong Capra feel and delves into its characters lives with emotion and depth. Itís not the second greatest movie ever made, but itís a very good one.