What I’ve Been Watching: The Shawshank Redemption

In which I discuss finally watching a movie that everyone has already seen.

Film: The Shawshank Redemption
Director: Frank Darabont
Primary Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown, William Sadler, James Whitmore, Gil Bellows
US Release Date: 14 October 1994

I’ve been vaguely aware of The Shawshank Redemption for about as long as I can remember, but I never watched the whole thing until a few days ago. Growing up, I remember always seeing the VHS in my family’s collection, but—since I was a child—I always skipped over it and chose a Disney movie instead. I also remember my father regularly declaring it one of his very favorite movies. Occasionally, I’d walk into the living room to find one or both of my parents watching the film on TV, and for years I’ve known that the main character (whoever he was) escapes prison through a tunnel hidden behind a poster.

The Shawshank Redemption has been floating just within my atmosphere for over two decades; and though it’s difficult to determine the exact effects, I’m certain that such proximity—paired with a prolonged lack of direct experience—did impact how I experienced the film when I finally watched it. In fact, the combination of inflated expectation, childhood naiveté, and general knowledge of certain plot details that previously formed my conception of The Shawshank Redemption may have worked to leave me somewhat disappointed with its reality.

Which is not to say that I did not like or that I do not appreciate Darabont’s most illustrious directorial work. It’s a solid, well-crafted, and powerful film. But it’s also not as interesting, memorable, or creatively impressive as I would have liked.

Above all, The Shawshank Redemption tells a good story. And while a strong story and great film are not the same thing, the quality of this film’s narrative remains crucial to its success. Thanks to its story and characters (rather than to more purely cinematic elements like its visuals), The Shawshank Redemption is often engaging, entertaining, and emotionally moving. Though hardly unorthodox or boundary-pushing, the film’s story also contains enough layers to sustain its 142-minute running time. That said, a smattering of ham-fisted and clumsy lines do detract from the overall effect. Moreover, as solid as the film’s tale of perseverance and human connection might be, Darabont doesn’t give viewers much else to sink their teeth into beyond that.

As I already indicated, my lack of unqualified praise for The Shawshank Redemption may be at least tenuously connected to my prior knowledge of how the film would end. As soon as I heard Andy ask for a rock hammer, I knew exactly what he would use that rock hammer for. Although it isn’t revealed until the film is nearly over, I never questioned that he was using his posters to conceal a potential escape route. Surely, the film’s big reveal would have surprised me much more if I had gone into it blind. More importantly, it may have impacted me more strongly and inspired me more intensely as well. I don’t really believe that spoilers can ruin a good piece of cinema, but they can undermine it just a bit.

The Shawshank Redemption is about relationships and endurance, and it’s about comradery and survival against all odds. The film features friendships developed under terrible circumstances and centers on a man who finds a way to continue living even when he has every reason to throw in the towel. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy does his best to remain Andy. More importantly, he saves himself.

In a lesser story, Andy Dufresne would be saved by come miraculous and contrived legal event. That, or his imprisonment would be easier to understand, because someone would deliberately frame him for murders they knew he didn’t commit. In a lesser film, something external would free Andy, and his innocence would be acknowledged by both the universe and the system that wronged him. Fortunately, The Shawshank Redemption—although not always subtle—is much smarter than all of that. Andy doesn’t escape Shawshank because he is innocent. He escapes, because he finds a way to. Andy plays the long game. He takes small steps. He stays focused for years and years. He puts in work even though he knows that his efforts might never pay off. Andy should not be in prison, but he doesn’t focus on how he has been wronged. Instead, he focuses on doing what he needs to do to survive and on finding his own way back to life. That he manages to help Red and to take down the Warden in the process is icing on the cake.

The Shawshank Redemption will change the way I view prison movies from now on, and I was impressed with Tim Robbins’s performance. The film may not do that much artistically, but what it does, it does well. The film also entertained me and moved me in its way. There is a good deal to enjoy and to respect in The Shawshank Redemption. Still, I don’t expect I’ll be revisiting it much in the future. Maybe it’s just not for me. As much we might like to skirt the issue, personal taste definitely impacts individual reception of a film. My dad isn’t wrong when he says that The Shawshank Redemption is one of the greatest movies he’s seen, but I’m not wrong to find it a little too vanilla either.

Watch The Shawshank Redemption.

Until Next Time
I recently watched Trainspotting for the first time as well, so I may write up a short post discussing it soon.

I also plan to get my butt to the movie theater sometime this week. So, hopefully that works out.

In the meantime, thank you so much for reading—and for putting up with my sporadic posting! As always, I’d appreciate it if you followed this blog, either through wordpress or on twitter. You should also feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions, comments, or movie recommendations you’d like to share.

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