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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

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…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.