Skip to main content

You're gonna fit right in. Everyone in here is innocent, you know that?

The Shawshank Redemption
(1994)

(SPOILERS) The Shawshank Redemption’s reputation has become so ubiquitous – still number one on IMDB – that it’s inevitable, having been the underdog out of the gate (a poor box office performance, no Oscars from its seven nominations, but subsequently the top rental of 1995 as word of mouth exploded), that it’s now commonly dismissed as overrated. It’s impossible to counter such a claim, except to note that Shawshank’s a victim of being a “universal” tale, accessible in a manner relatively few modern movies are (there’s little sex, violence or swearing, the occasional instance of male rape aside); it has the robust, conservative air of classical Hollywood, of simpler times and the unbesmirchable values of aspiration and hope, but without oft-accompanying, off-putting cloying sentimentality. So yeah, Shawshank’s overrated to the extent that it isn’t the best movie of all time, but when it comes to “likeable” movies, it has little competition. You probably have to go back to the days of Frank Capra for serious counter bids.

Not that I have any strong beef with some of the criticisms launched at Shawshank; it just isn’t the kind of film where we they hold weight. Yes, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a rich white guy, but isn’t it always thus with King’s protagonists? We should just be grateful he isn’t also an author. And fair comment, the prison is a remarkably unthreatening place, as long as you avoid the showers and laundry. But I don’t think the proceedings would gain anything by dialling down the inmates’ camaraderie and upping their shiv quotient. It’s the film it is because it operates with the restraint it does.

Slant Magazine, in its tenth anniversary reappraisal, sought to slate the picture through attacking its perceived audience, the “sensitive straight man” (“Beaches for straight men” is an admittedly impressive slight) and inevitably cites Oz as an example of how you should do prison (because all depictions of incarceration are required to be equally responsible, starting with Stir Crazy). I can’t really disagree with its less contentious (read: bleeding obvious) points – although the author doesn’t seem to register that Red was written as Irish and then Morgan Freeman was cast in the role – but the desire for it to be a film it expressly doesn’t want or need to be (of panning away from Andy being raped, “The irony here is that prison is a spit-and-polished fairy-tale for Darabont, who would rather linger on an old man feeding a worm to a sick little bird than confront us with the humanity of an unjust world”) means the writer fails to recognise what it is (that there are other ways to tell a story than through merciless confrontation), levelling the charge that by not bringing the most brutal, uncompromised version of reality it is undermining those elements (“violence, rape, manhood, and male bonding”). It’s an inflexibly specious argument, one whereby there could be little variation or potential in the presentation of art, guided as it would be by a rigid code of verisimilitude that squeezes out of it the very aspirational quality that is at the film’s core. There is no real hope, so movies should always reflect this.

That said, I can sympathise with some of the other criticisms; while I wouldn’t say I find Freeman’s comforting tones a chore, the narration isoften superfluous, merely reinforcing what’s patently obvious. And there’s a tendency to build the mythic hero veneration of Andy a little too much, such as in the bet placed on which new prisoner would cry during the first night (“He never made a sound on the first night”) or Red’s charitable interpretation of Andy’s motives for offering his services/getting his friends beers during the tarring of the roof: “I think he did it to feel normal again”. I’m less convinced. He clearly made the calculation, if he’s as bright as we’re supposed to believe, that he could capitalise on his skill set, and only nearly comes a cropper because he’s too emboldened by his innate feelings of superiority (as he later is when he accuses the warden of being obtuse). The beer part is just gravy.

Frank Darabont cites the narration as ensuring Stephen King’s voice is retained in the adaptation, which is a reasonable defence. Mostly, it’s become pretty much the definitive use of Freeman (such that Clint’s cynical re-enlistment of the actor in the same capacity in Million Dollar Baby finally earned him an Oscar, a decade later). Ironically, that was in the Supporting Category, because his nomination here was as lead, surely mostly because of the narration; it’s Andy, after all, who is the protagonist in the sense of motoring the plot, while Red is mainly the passive observer.

Shawshank’s a long movie, of course, but then, its designed to unfold over the span of years. On balance, I think Darabont makes the right choice in not going overboard with makeup – too long for there not to be changes in faces, but not long enough for there to be drastic ones – but the counterweight is that you never really feel two decades have passed for the characters. In terms of content, though, the one area I think the picture could have done without is the convenient proof of Andy’s innocence showing up. It’s too tidy, and I prefer the ambiguity of leaving the audience to decide whether he did it or not.

Mostly though, in response to critiques of the picture’s fidelity to truth and realism, I’d counter that this is absolutely a fantasy movie, regardless of Red informing us “prison is no fairy-tale world”. Darabont straight up says as much (“It’s classic myth figure stuff. He comes, he changes the place, and he goes” he noted of Andy; it’s the difference between a Shane and an Unforgiven, if this were a western); you may as well criticise Star Wars for lack of fidelity to the Apollo space programme. Broadcasting Mozart to raptured inmates, commonly railed against by those disinclined towards the picture’s flights of fancy, makes it abundantly clear what sort of film this is, if you hadn’t hitherto realised. The tale’s twists merely underline this: that the variant posters always remain intact through decades of searches, that no one ever opens Andy’s Bible, that he somehow manages to seal the poster from inside the hole when he finally bolts; they’re conjuring tricks underlining the type of movie this is, one that conspicuously doesn’t operate in a world of plausible cause and effect, but where one steadfast man is able to outwit those who would be the death of him.

In its way then, The Shawshank Redemption is not so far from the actual Best Picture winner of its year, Forrest Gump. Both offer bittersweet hope and perseverance against the odds, emphasising the value of self-belief, with an untouchable, enigmatic enabler at their centre, one who enriches the lives of those around him. Red tells Andy that “Hope is a dangerous thing”. It’s certainly dangerous to attempt a movie where it endures intact, as you’ll more than likely find yourself inclined towards the pitfalls of unwarranted sentimentality and cynical manipulation (I know, because those are charges I’d level at Gump); successful navigation of treacherous territory may explain why the response to the picture is relatively sopronounced. As Darabont notes, people “view the basis of Shawshank as a metaphor for their own difficulties”. Realism just wouldn’t cut it in that regard.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake

The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blakefollows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …