Saturday, April 29, 2017


(September 1994, U.S.)

During the 1990s, I did a lot of "movie hopping" at various multiplexes. In case that term eludes you, it's when you pay one ticket price and proceed to move around, or "hop" throughout the building watching more than one movie. Saved me a lot of money and I really got to catch up on my movies that way. Sure, it was dishonest and the multiplexes likely lost money because of me, but frankly, my dear, I just didn't give a damn!

Okay, so one night in the fall of 1994, I pay my ticket money at a local multiplex in Queens, but not to see THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Believe it or not, I was there that night to see WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (I kid you not!). You see, somehow I'd gotten it into my head that because Wes Craven was now directing again and Heather Langenkamp had returned to her role that made the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET such a hit (a film I actually no longer care for), this new (and seventh!) film in the franchise might be worth something. Oh shit, was I wrong! When it was over, I concluded that I somehow had to make up for the time and money wasted on this slasher dud. Without thinking too much about it, I simply walked into THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION because it was about to start at a convenient time. Despite the fact that the movie poster indicated it was based on a story by Stephen King, whom I loved to read, my thoughts and expectations of the film were minimal, at best. Well, it proves once and for all that sometimes the things you expect the least from shall deliver the most in return. And return, it did.

While I haven't seen too many prison dramas in my time, it's clearly become its own genre over the years, dating back to the earliest days of cinema. To call THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION my favorite prison film (which it is!) is almost too easy since I have almost no basis of comparison. In almost any prison story, you have the protagonist who is either innocent of his crime that put him there, or grossly misunderstood as a human being, despite the crime he's guilty of. This latter description would probably best fit the character of "Red" (played by Morgan Freeman and also the film's effective narrator), who, despite being convicted for murder, is a gentle man who's reputation as "the one who can get you things" not only identifies his purpose as smuggler at the prison, but also shows his kind heart in making conditions for the convicted felons there a little easier.

But let's step back a bit and concentrate on the film's hero, banker Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), who in 1947, is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover; a crime he didn't commit. Nonetheless, he's sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Keeping to himself at first, Andy finally opens up to "Red" by requesting a small rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth. While adjusting to the hell that is considered prison life, Andy is routinely assaulted and raped by a gang infamously known as "the Sisters". It's a simple spring day atop a roof building that turns things around for Andy when he inadvertently help a brutal prison guard keep his entire inheritance tax free by offering sound financial advice. The price of this valuable advice is merely three beers apiece for his fellow prison mates. In one moment of verbal risk, Andy is able to turn things around for himself with not only the prisoners, but the guards, as well, who now rely on Andy's financial services at tax time every year (and also get "the Sisters" off his back for good). As the years roll on by and the situations become more stable for Andy at Shawshank, so does his purpose there, including obtaining government funds to improve the decaying prison library and helping young prisoner Tommy Williams pass his high school GED exam. This young kid also just happens to possess information that could exonerate Andy from his crime and his conviction. Warden Norton (played by Bob Gunton) won't have that, though, as Andy has been quite instrumental in helping him in his corrupt money laundering scheme. Norton has Tommy killed to protect his little operation and it now looks like Andy has reached the end of his rope, as he faces a lifetime at Shawshank.

In the history of movie plot twists and shocking revelations, the moment when we discover that Andy has escaped Shawshank and has, for the last nineteen years, been systematically planning that escape, is one of the best I've seen on film. From the moment Norton rips the poster of Raquel Welch off of the wall and we're staring into a large gaping hole (looks like that little rock hammer wasn't so harmless, after all), it's astounding when we finally realize that all the while we've been victims (sort of) of a major deception that ultimately puts our hero on top. We know Andy has been innocent all along and we take pleasure in his personal triumphs within the prison walls that make his life easier. But nothing puts a smile on our face quite the way Andy's final act of defiance and revenge does when he not only escapes to his final destiny of the beaches of Mexico, but also in having taken down Norton in the process. To think back on Andy's actions, though small as some of them may have been, and realize how they all come together to make him a free man and to also aid "Red" on the day he should one day be free, is a personal triumph for us, as well, because we love the feeling of finally having been let in on the ultimate plan that was taking place behind our backs the entire time.

The integrity and feelings of self-worth among men are, perhaps, the strongest themes of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. In prison, where life seems hopeless, it's the simplest things that make men feel like men again, and not animals; whether it's cold beer on a May morning or a brief recorded excerpt of the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Still, even those moments of freedom are threatened by the hard fact of being institutionalized. As "Red" puts it, "These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them." By that reckoning, being free on the outside proves to be a form of imprisonment, as men like "Red" and Brooks are unable to function in the outside world. Friendship, while being nonsexual, is also very strong, as it proves the bonding love between men who have come to depend on each other for survival. There are moments that are wonderfully satisfying and uplifting, particularly the moment we, as viewers feel our own sense of triumph and validation at the end, when "Red", now a free man, strolls along the beach to be reunited with his best friend Andy, and the promise of hope and freedom.

Author Stephen King himself declared THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to be one of his favorite film adaptations based on his own work. For myself, I consider it to be one of the top ten best films of the 1990s (and that's all because my initial purpose on night in 1994 was to see a stupid horror movie!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

"Red" (narrating) "I like to think the last thing that went through his head...other than that bullet...was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him."

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