Tuesday, March 23, 2010
The Great Movies: "The Shawshank Redemption"
The Shawshank Redemption
Frank Darabont, 1994
Previous Contact: I saw The Shawshank Redemption in a theater during its original release, and thought it was pretty good.
Regardless of its virtues as a movie, The Shawshank Redemption is very interesting as a phenomenon. Most of the people who saw it in first release were like me -- they thought it was pretty good -- but there weren't a whole lot of us, and the movie closed as a substantial financial failure. Afterwards, though, it had a spectacular second life on video and DVD, fueled largely by word-of-mouth. By the end of the decade it had lodged itself, apparently permanently, at the top end of the Internet Movie Database user-voted list of the 250 best movies of all time. As of this writing, in fact, it is in first place with an average rating of 9.1 after nearly half a million votes cast. And Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics, lists it here on his first list of one hundred great movies.
This is all pretty baffling. Not because it's a bad movie -- it's not, not by any means -- but because it is such a... well... average sort of movie. Actually, not even average: above average. Solid. Well-made. But for the life of me, I don't see how there's anything great about it.
If I was going to try to shoot it down, I would focus on a certain sentimentality, slow pacing, a ton of voiceover exposition, and a prison full of hardened felons who act more like a university charity club. Also -- hmm, how can I say this without introducing a spoiler? -- there's an ethical problem: we are asked first to be horrified by the fruits of slave labor, but later to be delighted by it. But then, these are really just quibbles, more than balanced out by a somewhat unusual story line, strong acting, a terrific prison set, and some genuine dramatic surprises for the first time viewer. It's good! Honest!
Plot: Educated banker dude goes to prison -- Shawshank Prison, hence the name -- after maybe killing his wife, maybe not. He fails to succumb to the inhumanity of prison, and is able in small ways to render it more humane, kind of. To redeem it, if you will. Hence the name.
Visuals: Very strong visuals throughout, with two standout shots: the first, a swooping aerial shot that establishes the prison where the story takes place, and the second the bleak prison interior where the characters must stand outside their cells at the beginning and end of every day. It must be said, though, that Shawshank was probably the only bleak, corrupt mid-century maximum security prison where all of the inmates were allowed to maintain fabulous designer haircuts.
Dialog: As a rule of thumb, a director who tells a story through voiceovers is confessing weakness. They tend to be boring, and the folksier they are, the worse. This is remedied by strong acting from the principals; the movie is well cast with very well-known and accomplish actors. More quibbling: in the early going, there is an awful lot of Coarse Prison Talk that is delivered as if by priests who are trying to be a good sports while playing gangsters in an edgy parish play.
Prognosis: It's quite a good movie! According to a (fairly suspect) source I found here on the interwebs, it was the 8th most frequently listed American movie on critics' "Best Films of 1994" lists. And that seems about right.