Late To The Party: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: Packer_Hat finally watches The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

The Ignorance

            Why does someone not watch a movie? The answer’s obvious. It’s because they don’t want to. It’s not their favorite genre. They’re never in the mood to watch it. It’s never on so they’re never able to catch it. Seriously, it could be any number of reasons. Not everyone has to watch everything. You’re not owed an explanation. Nobody is!

But what if you’re the kind of cinephile who wants to watch everything? You’ve been sold a bill of goods on the vast history of an art form being largely available and you want to y’know see all the good stuff. But what good stuff do you prioritize? And why would you go years avoiding what has been dubbed by the Internet as the greatest film of all time?

Yeah, I just wasted two whole paragraphs trying to avoid saying why I had never seen The Shawshank Redemption. I know, I know, it’s the number one film of all time according to IMDB. But that’s exactly why I didn’t have high hopes. Take a look on the films on that list. They’re not bad individually but collectively they tilt towards an adolescent male taste that’s suffocated film discourse since the late 50s. They focus on men in intense situations with little humor or relief from their self-seriousness. That said, jokes have a better chance of getting screen time in these films than women. Film criticism has hammered away at women and romance-centered films for decades. “True cinema” seems to naturally flow from stories about bros being bros, apparently. Heck, read any piece on The Shawshank Redemption and they’ll often mention that it bombed back in ’94 because “it didn’t have any women in it” as if including a whole gender in a movie would be pandering.

So there was that issue I had with the movie, but really everything about its critical reputation screamed internet meme to me. It was made by a no-name director whose career consisted solely of directing a decent but over-glorified horror writer’s work. It was in a humorless genre that I didn’t care for from a decade in Hollywood I’ve often written off as commodified committee films. Between basic cable and streaming, it was almost too available. But perhaps more importantly…it was parodied on Family Guy.

Sorry. Sorry. That “Three Kings” episode told me the whole story of Andy Dufresne and his years of digging towards freedom in 8 minutes and it’s very funny but it just didn’t make the story look interesting. Honestly, I love the episode but it put me off Stand By Me, Misery, and this one for three years. Heck, I just saw Misery this year and I still haven’t seen Stand By Me. But I have seen this.

I should probably talk about this movie now.

After this Family Guy clip.

The Actual Movie

(Heads Up: the section in between these two videos will discuss the plot of The Shawshank Redemption explicitly which will include a discussion of sexual assault depicted in the film.)

I’ve found the mark of a great movie is that people can never capture it in words. You can read every a complete summary, but the actual film should be ineffable in a way that pop culture can’t truly nail down. You can hear about Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson but that won’t convey the wistfulness To Kill A Mockingbird is really about. Ask Mrs. Robinson if she’s trying to seduce you, but The Graduate doesn’t actually have that on its mind. If you think Citizen Kane is about one man’s love affair with his sled, you got a whole other thing coming to you. If the text only has the text to offer, then some human spark has been lost in the making.

So the test for me is if The Shawshank Redemption would be able to surpass my knowledge of the bare bones of its story. Would my seeing clip show after clip show of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) celebrating in the rain have sapped the scene of its potential? I knew that Andy’s story would be narrated by his fellow cellmate and eventual best friend Red (Morgan Freeman) as he observed Andy bringing dignity to the prison and planning his escape with a happy ending as the pair reunited in Mexico. But was knowing that all there was?

I am happy to report the answer is a resounding no.

I was totally unprepared for the darkness of the first hour of the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins paints the first half of the film in beautiful darkness starting from the first scene. A 1940s oldie warbles on the soundtrack as we see bank teller Andy Dufresne prepare to murder his wife and her lover. The movie makes us think that’s what happened as he’s convicted and brought to Shawshank Penitentiary. Shooting in a real life prison in Ohio, Deakins’ sweeping camera and atmospheric lighting makes the gothic complex a sinisterly looking black pit where evil lurks around every corner and shadowy predators attack without warning. It’s quite beautiful to look at in a “staring into the void” kind of way.

What makes that first hour so startling is how Hell on Earth is made mundane. Red’s narration states that prison life is about routine and that Andy’s routines early on consist of pain and torment. Again through Family Guy, I was aware of The Sisters as being a group of gang rapists in the film but I didn’t realize their repeated targeting of Andy was the defining conflict of the first hour of the film. The movie keeps it just this side of oblique as to what’s happening to Andy, but we get a sense of what’s repeatedly happening. It’s actually pretty dark for a mainstream Hollywood film. For a film often identified with “film bros,” it’s telling that the only camaraderie is the grotesque evil of The Sisters and the detached derision of Red’s circle. Of course, it’s also telling that Dufresne’s most successful attempt at fighting them off is when he uses a film reel depicting the beautiful Rita Hayworth as a weapon.

Everything starts to turn around for him when Andy starts giving financial advice to a prison guard (Clancy Brown playing a sadist like only he knows how) in exchange for a round of beers for all his fellow prisoners but himself. That pivotal moment happens on the rooftop after a day of hard work, allowing the happy hour to occur at a golden hour of sunset. Dufresne has brought light into Deakins’ dark world.

He doesn’t stop there. As Dufresne does more and more for the guards and eventually the corrupt warden, he creates more perks for the prisoners as he builds them a library, helps them get high school degrees, and indirectly has the head of The Sisters paralyzed. Some say that Andy serves as a Christ figure in the story. Yet if he is, he follows in the grand American tradition of rewriting Christ to be more to their liking. Andy’s college-educated and unassuming but devious. He sees true morality as helping people pull up each other by their bootstraps through self-education and hard work. God knows the corrupt warden doesn’t prepare them for life back on the outside. The men break down at the prospect of freedom. But Andy returns civilization and dignity to them all the same.

Tim Robbins gives an unassuming performance, hunching over to downplay his huge height. He’s oft compared to a Frank Capra protagonist here, but his performance reminds me most of Henry Fonda’s quiet performance as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Morgan Freeman’s Red is his Doc Holliday, the cynic who is shown the light through his friend’s efforts. Red fares better than Doc though. To double back to the Christ metaphor, Red is the only man in Shawshank to admit he’s guilty of his crime. This makes him the man most willing to be redeemed by the selfless goodness of Andy Dufresne.

But wait, isn’t Dufresne a murderer? Turns out no. In perhaps the story’s most conventional twist, it turns out another guy killed them. He’s the only innocent man in Shawshank. I have to admit having the film’s goody two-shoes be a double-murderer gave the first half of the film a unique edge that is unfortunately defanged by the second half. Andy does take some responsibility for his wife’s death in that his inability to be a good husband drove her into the arms of another. That admission tampers down the movie’s complex about women that rhymes with Ravonna/Bore: Andy’s wife is only seen having sex her lover in a red dress while Andy worships his huge movie star posters that literally hide his self-made path to salvation. Of course, the relationship of his life is his genuine friendship with Red.

You can guess that I did end up finding the second half of the film to be a bit more conventional and what I expected. The script follows the lead of most major 90s entertainment where the scripts are textbook examples of set-up and pay-off. The film makes sure everything about Andy’s break-out is set up so it can pay off and sometimes you can see the cogs at work. For instance, a lengthy detour showing an elderly prisoner played by James Whitmore exists so you can know the exact feelings and concerns Andy and Red will face as they consider life on the outside. It of course leads to a good end for out characters. But y’know what the movie puts in the work and all these feelings are earned.

The Verdict

            As I said up top, Hollywood films in the 90s did often feel like an elaborate mousetraps designed to goose your feelings. You can find their legacy in the millions of screenwriting books that demand that films have to follow the “rules of storytelling.” They were a sign that spontaneity was on its way out in the cinema. In many ways, The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies but like the best of them, it surpasses its mere machine work.

Frank Darabont hit upon something when he decided to adapt this film. I haven’t seen his other films nor read the original short story he almost single-handedly adapted and shepherded to the screen. I haven’t seen his other work so I can’t say whether this story was personal to him, but I can say that the story is universal to us all. Shawshank prison can be a metaphor for anything from Plato’s Cave to addiction to life itself. Anything that we need to live with and hopefully overcome with Shawshank. In witnessing Andy and Red’s mundane struggles over almost 20 years, we can achieve an brief state of transcendence by studying their steady growth in spite of barren soil.

Because when we watch movies, we can have Peter Griffin on a boat in Mexico in the back of our heads but that won’t substitute for breathing in what the film actually is. The dark corridors of Shawshank where people see the light are instantly recognizable but offer subtle mysteries that tend to grow in our brain like those of the great masterpieces. It is The Shawshank Redemption you expect and it isn’t.

Because some movies really are that good.