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Non-Review Review: The Shawshank Redemption

I have to admit, I’ve always found The Shawshank Redemption a tad overhyped. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a masterfully made film with a fantastic cast and a fantastic score from a director at the very top of his game. Still, the movie’s never entirely won me over – perhaps because I can’t entirely buy into the parable of hope and redemption that is being spun. It’s very powerful stuff, but I can’t help but feel a little cheated with the fact that the movie asks us to believe that something good came of the pit of human suffering at Shawshank.

You can easily get board in Shawshank...

For those unfamiliar with the plot, or who haven’t seen the film (and I suspect that there are very few people who haven’t seen it yet), it follows Andy Dufrane as he spends his prison term inside Shawshank Penitentiary. Andy is accused of killing his wife and her lover in a fit of rage. He protests his innocence – but then again everyone inside does (“lawyer screwed me,” is a common refrain inside the walls of Shawshank). Andy does what he can to keep himself sane, while striking up an enduring and remarkable friendship with fellow inmate Red – the guy who can get you anything.

“Prison is no fairytale world,” Red narrates at one point, with Morgan Freeman’s heavy silky tones granting the words credibility. And yet, it is. Sure, parts of the film are brutal – prison beatings, rape and even murder seem occur frequently within the walls of Shawshank – but we tend to forget that the original Grimm Brother fairytales were populated with similar instances of violence. We’ve lost a lot of that in the Disneyfication of tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. And yet, amid the film’s brutality, there’s a clear moral – a saccharin sentiment we wouldn’t hesitate to share with children. “No good thing ever dies,” we are comforted at one point, despite witnessing the impact that Shawshank can have on people.

We learn that it takes a strong will to survive on the cell block. One tubby inmate dies after receiving a beating from the prison guard on his first night. Hell, even if you live long enough you end up being “institutionalised” if you aren’t strong enough. You end up “tired and afraid all the time” in the outside world. “They send you here for life and that’s exactly what they take,” Red suggests at one point.

Andy's a little on edge...

And yet the fact that Andy endures all this is supposed to make us happy. He has “something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch” – hope. He crawled through a river of human excrement “and came out clean on the other side”. And it’s powerful stuff. The imagery is used in advertising the film, and even on the DVD menu, so I don’t think I’m spoiling it by bringing it up. Anyway, Andy endures by dreaming of getting out to Mexico, “a warm place with no memory”.

And therein lies my problem with the film. To have your life taken away and to find yourself only able to live in a place that has no memory (because you want to forget the last few decades), that isn’t a happy ending. That’s downright tragic. And yet, the musical chords and the movie ask us to accept this as a moment of joyous releases, as if somehow the fact that Andy endured his time behind bars is something to celebrate of itself. Maybe it is, but it’s hard not to reflect that his story is the exception rather than the rule.

Of course, this is a personal complaint – and not a fatal flaw in the movie. It’s well made and the movie has a lot of skill and magic in its execution – from vignettes with the inmates, to little glimpses of day-to-day life, to Andy’s small victories. There’s powerful stuff, and it does make the audience feel. Darabont is – and always has been – a phenomenal director who understands human emotions. The soundtrack is wonderful, underscoring the isolation within the walls. Perhaps proof of the film’s power is in how many of the moments stay with you after watching it. Even years after my last viewing, I can recall situations and dialogue richly and vividly.

The casting is phenomenal. Morgan Freeman has pretty much made a career out of playing variations on Red, and with good reason – it’s a perfect union of actor and character that happens very rarely. And yet it’s easy to overlook Tim Robbins in the lead role. I’d argue that Bob Roberts is Tim Robbins’ finest performance, but he’s very good here. Very, very good. But Darabont has always been good at assembling a supporting cast. You’ll spot quite a few familiar faces from his later films like The Mist and The Green Mile. And there’s a reason that Darabont has continued working with them: they’re just that good. Bob Gutton and Clancy Brown – two actors who would go on to do great understated work on television – in particular deserve to be singled out as the Warden and the Chief Guard.

Although I’ll concede that I enjoy it quite a bit less than most other people, but The Shawshank Redemption is still a wonderfully well-made film. It’s high quality, the product of the best workmanship. Although the emotional notes don’t necessarily strike the chord for me, I can appreciate them.

7 Responses

  1. I have your same problem with the film. A life lived forgotten is not something to be celebrated. Great review, Darren.

    • I worry, though that we seem to be the only people who notice this or read it into the story. Maybe we’re just cynical?

  2. there are very few talented actors that is as versatile as morgan freeman `,*

  3. Life isn’t long enough for you to dwell on the past especially if it’s not something you want to remember. Red even says that he would have gone back and changed what his 17 old self had done if he could’ve. That event defined his life from that point onward but not necessarily in a good way. I think it is something to be celebrated if you can forgive and forget and just move on… like Andy says, “get busy living or get busy dying”

    • It’s a fair point, but I can’t help but feel that the ending isn’t a happy ending. It’s just happy relative to the rest of the film. Which would be grand – a film doesn’t need to have a happy ending – except that it tries to convince us that it is.

      What about any of Andy’s friends and families from the outside world? They’ll never know he didn’t do it, so he’ll never make peace with them, nor will he see them again. He’ll never be able to go back to the country where he grew up. He will never be able to forget the suffering and abuse inflicted upon him.

      Even the family of Tommy Williams will never know that that he managed to make something of himself (not just an education, but becoming a decent human being). They’ll continue to believe their loved one died a good-fer-nuthin’ kid shot trying to escape, because he was just a bad egg.

      All Andy’s left with is the material stuff – the money he saved. It would be one thing to end the film for him to completely sever his connection with the old life, but the ending emphasises that money is the only thing he can take with him. In fact, one wonders if the ending would be quite so “happy” without the treasure trove of money. And the movie still tells us money isn’t really worth anything at all in the grand accounting, as the Warden will ultimately attest.

      “Life isn’t long enough to dwell in the past” is a valid point for those who never reached the potential promised them as children, or who suffer a reasonable-but-unpreventable personal or financial loss. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” we say, and admire those who can. And, to be honest, we should.

      However, for any survivors of intitutionalised abuse similar to what Andy went through, it’s trite to suggest that merely “getting out” is a fair ending. It’s that sort of logic that allows institutional abuses to exist, because we convince ourselves that mere survival represents a happy ending. It doesn’t. It’s infinitely better than the alternative, but it’s not “happy.” The closest you can get to “happy” comes from making sure that this sort of thing never happens again – not through the conventient plot-resolving suicide, but by holding those involved to account.

  4. Where can Andy go…if he goes back to prove his innocence he’ll be arrested…the stench of humanity has proven its power…no to be with a true friend is all his heart wishes and we know they will apply themselves to make something of their new life. This satisfies me. See celluloidofkewl blog.

    • It’s a fair point, and I never pretend that Andy has any other option than what he does, or that he had any way of securing an objective outcome. But I don’t buy into the logic that just because it’s the only option that gets him out of prision it is a “good” option in any objective sense. It’s the “best” option available to him, but it’s not a happy ending. And the reason I don’t connect to the film as much as others might is because the film tries to present it as an upbeat ending. It’s just less downbeat than any of the alternatives.

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