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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.





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