Sunday, 23 October 2011
The Shawshank Redemption
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Clancy Brown, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore, William Sadler
By Alan Bacchus
The Shawshank Redemption is a schmaltzy little movie to be sure, but it’s a near-perfectly crafted slice of magic realism. The emergence of the film follows a unique trajectory. Upon its theatrical release, it was mostly forgotten by audiences despite receiving good reviews. Then, after seven Academy Award nominations, people took notice and rediscovered the film after some astonishing word of mouth. Now it's a beloved treasure of cinema of greater contemporary value than the same year’s overhyped tear-jerker Forrest Gump.
Gump and Shawshank have much in common. Both are polished Hollywood schmaltz-fests harkening back to the Hollywood dream factory of old, told in past tense voiceover with ho-hum common man southern charm. They’re inspirational stories of the Frank Capra ilk, men triumphing over adversity against institutions and systems of authority seemingly beyond their control.
Looking back on Gump, it’s shamelessly manipulative and sentimental. Shawshank has much the same quality, and by the midpoint of the film it threatens to dissolve into the same kind of cinematic mushiness if not for the series of remarkable twists orchestrated with superb misdirection, which send the film into the stratosphere of enjoyment.
The screenplay is diabolically clever in its approach. Initially, it shows its hero, Andy Dufresne (Robbins), as a drunken, jealous husband who, in a fit of rage, murdered his philandering wife and lover. Or maybe he didn’t. This possibility falls from our consciousness once the film turns into a prison movie. With Andy, a conservative banker in prison with hardened lifers, it’s a story of survival. Sure, he is gang-raped by gruff prison-homos, but Darabont keeps this film homely and nostalgic.
The prisoners in Shawshank Prison, namely Red (Morgan Freeman), Andy's best friend, are a charming bunch presented with a filter of nostalgia like remembering those great college days drinking beers with your buddies. It’s mostly good times at Shawshank, especially when Andy finds himself working for the warden as a tax consultant. This is the first of the twists that creep up on us without notice and send the film on a sharp right turn in another direction.
The second major turn occurs with the introduction of Tommy (Bellows), a youngster whom Andy teaches to read. But then, in a shocking reveal, he learns that he may be a key witness in proving Andy's innocence. This moment is a delightful surprise because by this point the audience, like Andy, has come to accept his sentence and his new life inside prison. The depiction of the prison as a 'pleasant' place in which he made the best of a bad situation helps to misdirect us away from the fact that Andy is an innocent man.
The third twist is the doozy and one of the greatest reveals in the history of cinema. After misleading us to the thought that Andy might commit suicide, Darabont reveals his grand plan, the seeds of which he had been planting all along – Andy’s escape. The prison drama suddenly becomes an escape movie – out of nowhere – sending our heads spinning in excitement with the thought that Andy might find his freedom and that the prison warden and the other corrupt officials might receive their comeuppance.
Indeed, it’s a great third act, which admittedly goes on way too long, pushing the audience’s need for absolute closure and sentimental happy endings. We didn’t need to see Morgan Freeman’s character reunite with Andy on the beach, a sad stain on an otherwise perfect film.
The Shawshank Redemption is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.