The Shawshank Redemption (1994) (R)

It's hard to keep on open mind when you go into "The Shawshank Redemption", mainly because its reputation precedes it. This movie tops "best films" lists time and time again and, if we are to believe IMDb, it's the best movie of all time. That's saying a lot and so, when watching it for the first time, it's hard to get rid of the idea that you're watching the best movie that's ever been made. Being the kind of person I am, I immediately go on the offense and look for errors in the film to justify to myself why my favorite movies are 'better' than this, which is probably not the right frame of mind.
I first watched "The Shawshank Redemption" a few years ago and I decided to give it another chance today. On first viewing, I found it long, boring, and counter-intuitive—on second viewing I must say I was more impressed with it.
The spoofs, rip-offs, and references to this movie are so numerous almost nothing is left as a surprise, even for first time viewers. And for those who know nothing, the script's tendency to lean towards optimism usually allows you to predict what's going to happen.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongfully convicted of the double murder of his wife and her secret lover. He is sentenced to two life sentences and finds himself inside Shawshank, a prison run by a fundamentalist warden (Bob Gunton) and enforced by a violence prone Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown). There is something giddy and righteous about these two men and the power they hold over the prisoners of Shawshank, it plants the seed of resentment in both the audience and the prisoners themselves.
Like any movie with this power conflict, we are led into several situations in which fairness and equality are thrown away and the lack thereof is flaunted in front of our face. It's enraging and it's very energizing. Andy becomes a pawn in this world, but, as his new friend and our narrator Red (Morgan Freeman) points out, he may be the match the prison system is waiting for.
Unlike "Cool Hand Luke", "The Shawshank Redemption" gives us a hero who is in no shape or form a rebel. Andy likes to play by the rules, but he likes to be smarter than everyone else and use his knowledge to gain control of limited situations. When he hits a walls a realizes that he has come to the extent of his power, this is when his world starts to collapse.
The biggest theme that pieces together the more episodic moments of the film is hope. Red thinks that hope is dangerous and Andy thinks hope is the only thing left worth fighting for. It is clear by the end of the movie which man we are supposed to believe.
"The Shawshank Redemption" isn't what I would like it to be: a commentary on prison; but instead it's a movie about hope and how good things happen to good people. This is my biggest problem with it. There is nothing in the movie that feels believable, and yet the vacant spaces between acts of courage and intelligence are filled with the depressing realization that the world isn't fair. The karma of the movie winds up in a final trope that allows us to take a deep breath and realize that everything is going to be okay.
This is very different from "The Green Mile", director Frank Darabont's other Stephen King prison movie, which ended a little bleaker and a little more powerful. "The Shawshank Redemption" states its purpose in the title itself, it is a redemption of Andy Dufresne and the injustices done not only to his physical body but to his emotional well-being. And by the end of the movie, we realize that he is one such protagonist who deserves this redemption.
If I would have had my way, the film would be much more dismal than it, which would defeat the reason that "Shawshank" has become so ubiquitous to the American film oeuvre. In my mind, it would make a more honest film; but maybe that's not what people want, they want the good guy to win, they want to see the bad guy suffer, and then want—all ironies understood—escapism.
But still, watching the movie, you have to appreciate its artistry and the care that went into it, particularly Thomas Newman's evocative score.

Score: ★★★

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