If, like me, you’re bunkered down at home while waiting for the worst of the coronavirus to pass, you might be feeling a bit grouchy about the restrictions on your freedom. What better way to give yourself some perspective than watching a movie (and a really good movie at that) about some people who have it a lot worse—because they’re in a real prison, where they have not only lost their liberty, but are also subject to the sadistic whims of those who rule over their lives?
If that sounds like a good idea, I recommend Frank Darabont’s 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, starring Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, and Bob Gunton. The screenplay, also by Darabont, is based on Stephen King’s short story “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”; the story itself is quite good, and offers proof, should anyone still need it, that King really can write.
The Shawshank Redemption is narrated by “Red” Redding (Freeman), a longtime convict who has adjusted to life within prison walls and is that rarest of rarities, a prisoner who admits his guilt. By way of contrast, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker recently arrived at the prison following his conviction for murdering his wife and her lover, steadfastly maintains his innocence.
Andy’s bigger problem, however, is that he doesn’t know how to protect himself, resulting in his frequent victimization by “the sisters,” a brutal gang of rapists. In fact, Andy might not have survived, had not his accounting expertise allowed him to do favors for several of the guards. Eventually, his talents draw the attention of the remarkably corrupt Warden Norton (Gunton), and he becomes Norton’s unofficial partner in creating all sorts of illegal schemes to profit off the labor of the prisoners. Such expertise proves a dual-edged sword, however—while Andy enjoys the warden’s protection as long as he’s useful, this set-up also means the warden has a vested interest in keeping him a prisoner.
Red and Andy become friends, due in part to Red’s position as the guy who can get what you want—for a price. Two items he procures for Andy prove key to the plot: a poster of Rita Hayworth for his cell wall, and a rock hammer so he can make chess pieces out of rocks he finds in the prison yard. I’m not going to say more than that about what happens, but I will say that the story comes to one hell of a conclusion, with the last 30 minutes as powerful an example of the cinematic art, Hollywood style, as you are likely to come across. And the final scene? I’m not crying, you’re crying.
There’s nothing supernatural in The Shawshank Redemption, but there are monsters all the same. Chief among them is Warden Norton, a class A hypocrite who likes to hide behind Bible quotations. Captain Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown) is Norton’s chief enforcer, breaking bones and literally committing murder when ordered to do so. Bogs (Mark Rolston) leads “the sisters,” who specialize in preying on the weakest and most isolated of the inmates. But not everyone in this prison is evil: James Whitmore contributes a sensitive portrayal of Brooks Halen, an elderly prisoner who runs the library, and Gil Bellows plays Tommy Williams, a young prisoner with a good heart but few brains and even less luck.
The Shawshank Redemption seems like an obvious classic today, but it didn’t even make back its budget when released in 1994, which demonstrates the imperfect correlation between ticket sales and cinematic quality. It did somewhat better with the Academy, being nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Freeman), and Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), but won none of them. | Sarah Boslaugh
Find out where to stream The Shawshank Redemption at ReelGood.com.