by Spike Scarberry
Over the summer, I worked as a camp counselor at the VCU Summer Arts Intensive. For three weeks, I lived in the freshman dorms, taking high-schoolers to class. My fellow counselors and I entertained the kids after class and gave them a glimpse of college life. During the intensive, a student named Patrick lived on my floor. Every day, I saw him smiling, laughing, interacting with the other students, having a good time. He actively joined in to all the activities, even our ridiculous “Robot under the Sea” dance extravaganza.
His entire future was ahead of him.
Patrick died last week of a heart complication. He was 17 years old.
None of us understand.
The Story in a Sentence: A man is sentenced to life in prison and finds redemption and hope while inside.
This is the review I told myself I would never write.
You’re too biased towards this movie (although that’s never stopped me before ((link to Hard Candy Review)). You love this film too much. You’ll never be able to put the impact of this film into words. You can’t do it justice.
This is the review I told myself I would never write.
I suppose rules are made to be broken.
When I first saw this film, I was a few weeks away from going off to college. I knew absolutely nothing about the film, other than it was rated #1 on IMDB’s Top 250 Movie List. I went in with unrealistically high expectations. Shawshank blew them all out of the water.
To me, there is only one way to describe it: perfection.
The film starts with Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) on trial for his wife’s murder. Andy proclaims his innocence, even when confronted by a dump truck full of damning evidence. He is convicted and sentenced to two back-to-back life terms, to be served at Shawshank state prison.
Red (Morgan Freeman) is a convicted felon currently residing at Shawshank prison. After 10 years, his parol has been denied. Red is a prison entrepreneur or as he describes himself: “I’m the guy that can get things for you. A bag of reefer, if that’s your thing, a bottle of brandy to celebrate your kid’s high school graduation, damn near anything within reason. Yes sir, I’m a regular Sears and Roebuck.”
If that’s not enough to get your cinematic juices flowing, Red then speaks one of the greatest lines in movie history…
“So when Andy Dufresne came to me in the summer of 1949 and asked me to sneak Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I told him ‘no problem’.”
Hearing this line, I was immediately hooked. “They’re going to sneak a woman into a prison? How the hell are they going to do that!” shot through my mind as the film played.
Thus began my love affair with this film and with director Frank Darabont.
Darabont, you see, is the king of adaptations. His work includes The Green Mile (1999) and The Mist (2007), both of which were Stephen King books. He currently directs and produces “The Walking Dead”, a TV series on AMC, which started as a graphic novel. The Shawshank Redemption was originally released as a Stephen King novella, just over 100 pages long. To call it an adaptation would be technically accurate, but let’s face it, the movie goes into much deeper detail than the short story ever did. Darabont creates characters and situations that never took place in the original piece, which is really where this movie thrives.
One would probably assume that a film set in a prison would focus on a man’s will to survive in a brutal environment, where gang rapes and murders are social norms. The movie acknowledges that these incidents occur, but primarily skips over them. Andy has to deal with an inmate named Boggs (Mark Rolston) who rapes him repeatedly for first 2 years of his time in prison. Then through a series of events that I shall not spoil, Boggs is shipped away to a hospital and Andy is vaulted to the realm of the untouchables.
Name any prison movie and it’s a good bet that it revolves around rape or violence. Shawshank is not that movie.
It is, in fact, a movie about the human spirit.
While none of Andy’s band of friends ever talk about what led them to the slammer, we hardly think of them as prisoners. Only Red admits to being a murderer (only when reading the book do we know that he cut the brake line to his wife’s car, which then crashed into a farmer’s market) and yet even then we don’t look down upon him. Because in a place that is supposed to house the scum of the world, we see these men as more than the stereotype – they’re real people who made mistakes in life. (Note that the film is set in the 1950′s. Obviously today’s prisons are much different).
Darabont does an excellent job of exploiting the human element of the characters, making each of them unique and enjoyable. In all likelihood, your favorite character may not be Andy or Red, but might be Heywood, Jigger, Floyd or Skeet. Through their interactions and acts of common decency, we come to love them as a whole.
The film takes a hard look at the American penal system in its entirety, not simply from a guilty/innocent view. A prisoner named Brooks (James Whitmore), an almost 80-year-old felon, has his parol come through. Having been in the system for the better part of his life, he doesn’t want to leave, almost killing one of Andy’s friends in order to stay. His attempts to reintegrate into society prove futile, as he is unable to adjust to the outside world. He kills himself inside his apartment.
Brooks became “institutionalized”, a condition that I don’t find too difficult to believe. Even though the film clearly looks down upon the system, it never comes across as heavy handed or too direct. It’s simply a statement about the way society functions.
Most films are driven by an antagonist, a character that directly opposes the hero and stops him from achieving his goal. Shawshank has two, the aforementioned Boggs who is disposed of rather quickly, and the prison Warden (Bob Gunton), who battles Andy for most of the 3rd act. The great thing about this story? It’s so well structured that for a long while, you don’t need an antagonist. The prison walls serve as a sort of barrier, but they remain in the background, away from the audience. This is where Shawshank really establishes itself as a character piece.
If the audience loves the protagonist, they’ll watch him do anything, regardless of story. Darabont does a great job of achieving this fact, letting Robbins and Freeman work their magic on screen. Even after the Rita Hayworth subplot is revealed (which actually is only a minor incidence), you remain interested. You garner great joy in seeing Andy rise above the crap, climbing to almost king of the inmates. He nearly single handedly builds a library for the inmates and helps a handful of others get their GED’s. While some of this might seem like filler material, it all plays out very well.
Again, if you love the character, you’ll watch him do anything.
The film’s supporting cast really adds an addition layer to the film. Clancy Brown plays an easily dislikable Captain Hadley, an on-again, off-again villain. William Sadler and Brian Libby (two favorites of Darabont) lead the Andy-and-Red’s gang of friends superbly. The fact that you love (or hate) all the characters makes the stunning climax so much more rewarding.
Just when it seems like Shawshank might break Andy, he tells Red about the place he’ll go when he gets out of prison. Zihuatanejo. It’s a town in Mexico, right on the Pacific Ocean. Red tells Andy that Zihuatanejo is a pipe dream, a place he shouldn’t even think about, because the fact is that “Mexico’s way the hell down there, and you’re in here!” I won’t tell you what happens after Andy storms away. You’ll just have to look for yourself to see.
This is not a film about a man who served life sentences in prison. It is a film about a man who rose above the corruption and savageness of a place where many others flounder. It’s a movie about a man who “crawled though a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.”
It’s a movie about hope. About love. About friendship. About trust.
It’s a movie that wants you to never give up. Never say ‘I quit’. Never throw in the towel.
There is always light at the end of the tunnel.
The dawn will always break after the storm.
The sun will always rise in the morning.
Patrick, I hope you found the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope you found your own Zihuatanejo. I hope…
I give this film 5 uplifting messages out of 5.