Do check out Karma Calling’s new twist to this meme with her Comprehensive Geek Guide to Movies.
Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free.
A movie described as a ‘prison drama’ with a weird, difficult-to-pronounce name, no action sequences, and running for two and a half hours. Further: no romance or love story, no heroine, no special effects, and no celebrity stars. Such a movie can hardly be expected to become popular. Yet, The Shawshank Redemption has more or less remained #1 on IMDB’s Top 250 films chart for over a decade. Why? Why have 400,000+ viewers rated it at the top and over 2000 users taken the time to write a review for it just at one website?
Nominated for 7 Academy Awards but winning none, the movie was underrated by most self-proclaimed critics, many of whom still dismiss it as a ‘popular feel-good’ movie with an improbable storyline. Their critical analysis focuses on exposing flaws, seeing the trees and missing the forest. Ultimately, The Shawshank Redemption works like music – the more times you watch and get familiar with it, the more you love it. Not many films share this unique trait.
This is the story of two imprisoned men, developing a bond over years of friendship, finding salvation and redemption. It is an inspiring story of hope and courage. The movie is an uplifting, spiritual experience, and that is the forest, and why this film has topped popularity charts in these times of fear, ‘threat levels’ and despair lurking beneath our everyday lives.
Frank Darabont, a first-time director, does not flinch from the nasty things that take place inside prisons. The cinematography by Roger Deakins (a Cohen brothers favorite) builds the lifeless life and drab existence in the prison. Despite this, it is not a dark film, in fact, it has its emotional payoff moments, humor, as well as a cathartic finale. From the quiet dignity exuded by Tim Robbins as the hero (Andy) and the beautiful narration and excellent performance by Morgan Freeman (‘Red’) as his buddy, to the entire supporting cast of Bob Gunton (the evil warden), James Whitmore (the old-timer Brooks), Clancy Brown (the sadistic guard), Gil Bellows (the young prisoner) – the performances are all first-rate.
I have following observations to add:
- Though set in prison, the film does not focus on the violence and hopelessness of life behind prison bars, but the opposite.
- The film is not seen from the hero’s point of view. This is pure genius and works subconsciously like a charm, because the hero continues to remain an enigmatic wonder to us.
- The character of the hero is conventionally established in films by a heroic or dramatic act or entry. Here, the hero is established ‘dramatically’ by the way he strolls in a carefree fashion inside prison.
- Our hero does not express any intense emotions for the most part of the film, but Tim Robbins is not under-acting. It is the character of Andy, beautifully built up by Robbins.
- The violent abuse and suffering of Andy is not shown closely, but from a distance. There is no pretentious or clichéd attempt to dwell on physical bruises or psychological wounds. Instead, Darabont makes us give space to Andy, like his fellow-inmates, thus building the character. This is remarkable story-telling.
- Meticulous attention to each sub-plot. Darabont is deliberate and thoughtful. This leisurely pace of the film is essential to the story, but was a great risk from a Hollywood box-office perspective.
- Simple, profound lines. “Salvation lies within.” “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank!” “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
- The grandest, most crowd-pleasing, heroic act performed by Andy is playing a Mozart aria to the prisoners in defiance of the authorities. The point is – this is no grand epic, no great action-adventure, but a simple drama that evokes epic emotions because it has connected the hero with our hearts deeply.
- To the critics who decry the drawn-out ending, I’d like to point out that the film was actually supposed to end with the shot of ‘Red’ going away in the bus. It was the studio that insisted on a more emotionally gratifying closing sequence leading to the magnificent ocean scene. The result is there to see in the IMDB rank!
- This is a beautiful example of adapting a novel to a film. Note the subtle ways in which the story in Stephen King’s novella was adapted for the movie.
- Red’s parole hearing three times in the movie beautifully segments the film into three parts.
- The prison walls are felt all throughout the movie. Yet their imposing presence is shown in only two shots at the beginning – the magnificent opening helicopter shot and the walls looming overhead.
- The movie did not win any Oscars and was a failure at the box office. This movie did not make it big because of big-budget marketing. Instead, 5 years after it released, it became a phenomenon via the home video market and word of mouth. This is how social networking works.
- It usually takes multiple viewings to realize that the film, at its core, is more about Red than Andy.
Well, this is again examining the trees, if anyone is so inclined. For me, I enjoy the forest.