The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont)

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One of two 1994 films with titles that sound like lesser Robert Ludlum novels (with The Hudsucker Proxy), Frank Darabont’s feature debut was once easy to lose in the shuffle of prison movies, of redemption movies, even of Stephen King adaptations, all of which would turn out to be specialities of this director. But long after Oscar season ended, this redefined the idea of a sleeper hit, attaining a mythology that coalesced nicely with the rise of the Web and led to its consideration as a cultural touchstone and classic beyond any other film of the ’90s, some say of any period. Scarcely promoted on initial release and only moderately well reviewed, the film made its reputation exclusively through the networking of its viewers, although the three-times-daily showings on TNT didn’t hurt. Even for someone who admired and was delighted by the film, the magnitude of its public impact could be difficult to comprehend, but King and Darabont are both broad, emotional communicators and the chord this struck, as well as the relative bareness of its story, made it easy to extrapolate, to appropriate its spiritual journeys as one’s own. Thus this became, for many people, The Movie of its time. But timing is everything — release this same film a few years earlier or later, before or after the dramatic rise of the Web, and you’re granted no such reward.

I admit to finding The Shawshank Redemption more compelling on first exposure than at any subsequent time, and I cannot say whether or not the metaphorically rich analyses I discovered online contributed to my disconnect; I never saw in it what a lot of people did, never could quite gather what made this movie specifically The Movie. But it was a well-plotted piece of non-claptrap, advancing upon a tight King short story from Different Seasons. You know the story so I shan’t bore you, but what counts about its tale of a wrongly imprisoned banker and his resourceful pal behind bars is the abstract catharsis to which it slowly leads, whereby they will join hands in some sort of impossible and lyrical paradise. The feeling on first pass is so good, and so complete, that it seems impossible not to be won over by the film — but repeated exposure after some years away has led me to sadly lose most of my connection to this childhood favorite.

Part of the problem is that King, a merchant of ruthlessly smug nostalgia almost more than spooks ‘n’ gore, and Darabont are a toxic combination. Darabont’s a tireless moralist and believer in “the healing power” of film, with an attachment to the simple and naively sentimental that suggest he spent a lot of time watching Stanley Kramer movies growing up. He’s not a Capra — his limited understanding of people gives his work the unfortunate gauze of the didactic. And as a first-timer in love with King’s somewhat hokey story and its sledgehammer message, he of course lingers far too long on everything. The source material might be a tad silly — if it were that easy to escape prison, wouldn’t more people do it? oh, I forgot, Andy Dufrense escapes specifically because he isn’t guilty, sorry — but it is tightly plotted and, significantly, is not enhanced by anything Darabont adds. So its outrageous length comes as a result of its director’s inexperience, probably, but also his refusal to believe that the epic sprawl he envisions for this isn’t a comfortable fit with the simplistic tale’s modest proportions.

142 minutes is a lot of time to contemplate very little. Shawshank operates like a lecturer who makes his or her point quickly then spends untold numbers of minutes on examples to elaborate and even restate the initial idea. It’s a “for instance” movie: for instance, there was the time that Andy got everyone free beers by agreeing to do the warden’s taxes. For instance, there was the prisoner who died on the first night. For instance, there was this incident involving “the sisters.” For instance, there was this business with the prison library, and this other business with the record played over the intercom (the silliest and emptiest of Darabont’s tangents). Even if many of these extrapolations are delightful and sincere in their sentiment if not their active compassion, you could delete a gigantic chunk in the middle of the film that emphasizes Dufrense’s outward status quo over his years in prison and feel few narrative consequences.

And all to tell us about “hope.” “Hope” is a big deal to Darabont and I don’t want to sound like the archetypal cynic here but what on earth does he really mean by “hope”? The redemption achieved by the central characters in this film — which Christos have had a field day interpreting as a coded Biblical message, chisel encased in the pages of the Good Book and all — comes to them strictly through various neatly cut and dried and wildly improbable scenarios, but so do their problems to begin with. I’d never debate the conceit that in the American justice system it’s more than possible for a man to serve a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, I’m sure it happens plenty often now and more so in the 1940s, though probably less often to well-to-do and literate white bankers (a coyly sidestepped point via Morgan Freeman’s character’s admitted guilt), but I question the likelihood of a prison warden’s histrionic reaction of murder to a new witness’s equally improbable entrance into his facility. In a film that rambles so much on its basic themes, cutting story corners like this is nearly unforgivable; it’s covered up by giving the actors one artificial-sounding speech after another about “hope.” But there’s nothing artful or real in this; it’s a political buzzword.

It’s something of a miracle that neither Freeman nor Tim Robbins come off too badly because of the monologues, though Robbins’ performance now appears painfully lacking. His pained facial expressions disguise a complete emptiness to his jack-of-all-narrative-purposes character, thereby making all too plain the limitations of the script. A change in taste? It never used to. Freeman is tightly controlled and solid as a rock as always, even though he’s as usual saddled with explanatory voiceover in nearly every scene. Hand in hand with the overelaboration problem described earlier is the superfluous nature of this narration, which may be the biggest problem with revisits to the film. It not only verbalizes things we can see and sense for ourselves, it picks up the unbelievably irksome Oliver Stone mantle of prepackaged literature analysis. But as in his nearly identical role in Million Dollar Baby, we can’t help initially hanging on Freeman’s words, loving him even.

The supporting cast of character actors lays bare Darabont’s attachment to classic genre pictures, albeit with only James Whitmore as lifer Brooks really managing to humanize his character — as in the director’s subsequent King adaptation The Green Mile, most of the officials and the other prisoners deemed “bad” by Darabont are written with no dimension and portrayed accordingly. Hope and humanism are selective, it seems. And although Darabont has a solid handle on the cause-effect portions of the story and their careful resolution, he can’t resolve the narrative and emotional inconsistency that’s part and parcel with much of King’s work. We’re asked to believe in alternating moments that prison is a terrible soul-stealing environment where you will be eaten alive by schoolyard bullies and rapists, and then that it’s essentially a slightly chaotic all-male H&R Block.

It’s sad to decry something so widely beloved, and I don’t intend to suggest that this is a bad film — it’s a decent one, at the very least, and it’s handily elevated from mediocrity by Thomas Newman’s flabbergastingly gorgeous music score and, more yet, by the beautiful and surprisingly florid (for a prison film) photography by Roger Deakins; any narrative flaws remain nicely concealed by the belief of those two men, and Freeman as well, in the material. But in sum total The Shawshank Redemption is not so much a deep and rich piece of storytelling as a decently crafted thing that does an excellent job of telling you to feel things rather than coming about its emotional peaks naturally. Maybe they’d feel more earned if we weren’t asked to spend so much time with characters who are basically as flat, arbitrary “good” or “evil,” as the chess pieces Robbins periodically shows interest in making. Nevertheless, 530,057 IMDB voters can’t be wrong, right?

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