The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Sometimes my critical faculties are short-circuited and I can only gush. Here goes.

I love The Shawshank Redemption. Everything about it.

I love the script. It’s one of my favorites ever: rich and twisty and just a bit hammy. It’s cleverly plotted, always paving the way for revelations later in the story without you quite realizing it. Few movies have used narration more successfully; Morgan Freeman’s Red not only fills in the narrative gaps, but provides emotional texture to every twist.

(The one part of the story I don’t like: The thread about “the bull queer sisters.” It’s tasteless and mean in a way the rest of the movie isn’t. Their only purpose is to emphasize Andy’s misery in prison, which is not entirely necessary. I’d like to see an edit that completely cuts them out. I don’t think much of value would be lost.)

I love the direction and look. Frank Darabont and Roger Deakins really make you feel trapped in a drab prison with “nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it,” to quote Red.

I love the acting. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are both excellent. Robbins is my favorite here; he plays Andy Dufresne as a guarded, reserved character while still projecting depth and vulnerability. The supporting cast is great too — Bob Gunton plays the warden at just the right level of villainy. He’s delectably mean, but not so cartoonish as to disrupt the film.

I love the score. Thomas Newman, who I’ve come to realize is a secret weapon in just about every movie he composes for, elevates the tension and sense of longing. It’s an understated score, but successfully blends all the competing ideas of the movie: despair clashing with hope and uncertainty, plus an undercurrent of darkness to the setting. Great stuff.

I love the ending. I get excited every time the movie builds to it and we see that Andy’s cell is empty. It’s so immensely satisfying to see Andy’s plan unfold, to watch him crawl through “shit-smelling foulness” to freedom. To hope.

And that last bit is what I love most about The Shawshank Redemption: It’s a tribute to the indefatigability of the human spirit, of the power for hope to carry us through dark times. Shawshank is not exactly coy with this theme — the final two words are, of course, “I hope” — but its inspirational qualities are the product of its storytelling above all else.

There’s a lovely passage about halfway through the film where Andy blasts a Mozart aria over the prison speakers. Here’s what Red has to say about it:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

It’s a perfect little capsule of the film’s theme. It also reminds me of how I feel when I watch it — no matter what “gray place” I’m going through, I feel free. Decades have passed since I first saw it, but it remains undeniably true: I love The Shawshank Redemption.

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