Finally, I watched the highest-rated movie of all time. Going in with a lot respect and high expectations, I had a great time and my expectations were even exceeded, unlike with some other classics. Despite its runtime it always stays interesting and concludes with an immensely satisfactory ending, totally deserving its place at #1 on imdb.
The movie starts off with the conviction of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker, for the murder of his wife. He is sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary, which is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, acquanting the viewer with the prison and playing with the theme of imprisonment and liberation.
The initial phase is the prison drama as we know it and as Shawshank probably influenced tremendously. Dufresne, an inconspicuous person, is introduced in a wonderful narration by Morgan Freeman’s character Red, a contraband smuggler:
“I must admit I didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man.”
“I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say… I liked Andy from the start.”
In the beginning, Andy is assaulted repeatedly without great resistance and these are pretty rough scenes. For a prison drama to work, one needs appealing characters. Enter Red and his gang. The film succeeds to make the process of bonding and forming a friendship among the appealing characters very entertaining, reinforced by the good chemistry between Robbins and Freeman. It also is full of interesting dialogue, making me want to see what people have to say.
The longer the movie runs the more we come to like Andy Dufresne. He performs extraordinary deeds of solidary: the beer on the roof, doing everyone’s tax returns, renewing the library, teaching Tommy and my favorite one – playing the record over the speaker system. You immediately go: “Oh shit, his ass is gonna get in some major trouble”; but the fact that it seems worth it to him makes him an incredibly compelling character. Despite his very sharp wit, he is never arrogant but even ready to help everyone, even the guards. In a great performance by Robbins, Dufresne cannot be broken despite of all the crap he has to endure and functions as an allegory of perseverance(which is added another layer late in the movie) and an inspring symbol of hope, filling this prison drama with a unique aura of positivity.
Andy: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
But remember, Shawshank is a prison drama so there is also a lot of depressing stuff. The movie is full of overt critique on the US prison system, most notably with Brooks’s character. Before finally being released after countless years, Brooks, whom we got to know as a very friendly character, acts out because he is scared that he won’t be able to cope with the new, ever-changing world outside these walls. And so it happens: Brooks gets out and is not apt to survive outside the prison. His decision is made very understandable by the movie. As Red calls it, he’s “institutionalized”:
“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. … Goddamn right. They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.“
There is misconduct towards the prisoners by the guards as well as among the prisoners. In addition, the leadership is very crooked, the warden (Bob Gunton) being the worst of all.
In order to not spoil too much here, I will now conclude and there will be additional commentary in the spoiler section.
Whether it is number one can be discussed forever but I think Shawshank deserves its place as Frank Darabont manages to please wide audiences of different tastes and is a movie everyone can agree on being a very good one. It not only has dramatic elements but is also very heartwarming and inspiring, not least due to Andy Dufresne’s display of integrity and fascinating character.
The twist perfectly rounds up the movie as it puts together so many of Andy’s peculiar behavior to a perfectly thought out plan. Even though I knew he was going to escape through a hole and kinda figured that’s what the hammer and poster are for, seeing it all put together and him crawling through 500 yards of shit (great metaphor!) still was impressive and the surprise still worked because of the scale of the plan. Red’s narration (“the longest night of my life…”), the staff’s surprise and the very good mislead with him seeming broken after all and having Red promise him to keep up his hope and buying a rope(!), all of that made the ending satisfactory. His resilience becomes even more impressive when you imagine him continually working on his plan, telling Red to never to give up, enduring all this shit, even being ripped of the opportunity to prove his innocence: The warden, whose hypocrisy is nicely established by being well-versed in the bible but also being greedy and egotistical at the same time, prevents Andy to file an appeal due to the new evidence Tommy provides by killing Tommy and severely punishing Angry. A massive act of injustice, he makes for one of the most appalling antagonists I’ve seen in a long time, not to speak of his exploitation of prison labor or Dufresne’s genius to launder his bribe money. In addition to being another aspect of critique, it’s also what makes the ending so satisfactory since it is a giant middle finger towards the warden.
One could argue that the movie idealizes prisoners but I disagree. I don’t think the movie idealizes criminals as we see a whole bunch of questionable things and not just Bogs and the “Sisters”, the sexual assailants. In the beginning, the viewer feels the denial of Red’s appeal might be appropriate as we don’t know him that well yet and he know him to be a contraband smuggler. After 40 years, it feels deserved as he shows remorse (40 years for 1 stupid crime). With increasing runtime, the system/the leadership becomes the villain, personified by the warden but also by the inability of Brooks and Red to adapt to life outside prison. Even though it was satisfactory to see Bogs beaten by guards, you also think they might have overdone it by beating him to paralysis. Obviously, for the message that the system is broken to work you need to have some role models and likeable characters. That would be Red and his gang as we never see them do anything despicable and, first and foremost, Andy Dufresne.
Andy Dufresne will remain of the most fascinating characters of film history for me:
“Andy Dufresne – who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.”
Images taken from imdb.com, © by Castle Rock Entertainment
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