Whenever moviegoers do time in prison--or the nuthouse--they almost always run across that one transcendent inmate who sets the others free with his soaring spirit. He may be called Cool Hand Luke or Randall Patrick McMurphy or Papillon, but he's always the soul of liberty--and the bane of authority. He takes his lumps, but he winds up the feel-good guy. Whether eating fifty eggs or taking everyone fishing, he's got a little Jesus Christ in him, too.
This familiar figure pops up again in The Shawshank Redemption. The time is 1946, and the unlikely hero is one Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a brainy young Maine banker who, in the opening scenes, is standing trial for the murders of his unfaithful wife and her golf-pro boyfriend. Apparently, he doesn't have Robert Shapiro as his lawyer, and he is quickly sentenced to a pair of consecutive life terms in a Gothic hellhole of a prison. On the first night, a guard casually beats one "new fish" to death in full view of everyone and threatens to repeat himself if he hears so much as "a mouse fart" on the cell block. The warden is a Bible-thumping hypocrite with a nasty streak of his own, and the whole prison, which looks like Dracula's castle without the amenities, is crawling with toughs armed with homemade shanks.
Just the setting to make new friends and eventually bring uplift to the damned.
Until now, writer/director Frank Darabont has been limited to a couple of minor TV movies, as well as co-writer credits on one of the Elm Street slasher flicks, a remake of The Blob and something called The Fly II. But when he got his hands on an old Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and turned it into a screenplay, he held out with the studio bosses to direct the movie himself.
The results are mixed. Shawshank is distinguished by another absorbing performance from Robbins and what could be a great--if strangely incomplete--one by Morgan Freeman, who finds the essence of the human being in chains. The film's compelling narrator, Freeman's "Red" Redding is a lifer who has long evaded the clumsy ploys of his keepers by serving as old Shawshank Prison's underground general store. But he's too resigned for hope. So he's cast himself into purgatory, like the disheartened patients under Nurse Ratched's thumb in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Red's potential savior--his McMurphy--is the clever proto-yuppie Dufresne, who has an awful time surviving at first but later uses his knowledge of tax shelters and investment strategies to manipulate the prison authorities. On one glorious day, he engineers cold beer for his pals, and his pluck finally gets the prison library revamped. Over the course of a twenty-year friendship, though, we see that Red has more depth. Sometimes you feel like you're looking straight into his divided soul, and it's a great pleasure to watch Freeman. Roger Deakins's dark cinematography is equally effective. Shooting in a derelict old reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, he remodels the place as sheer hell.
But Shawshank has a couple of problems. The original story is formula stuff in King's usual typing-for-dollars style, and Darabont hasn't done much to improve on it. He trots out every indomitability-of-man's-spirit cliche you can think of, all of which are embodied in the studio's sappy catchphrase: "Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free."
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The movie covers the period from 1947 to 1967, and while it does not shrink from the realities of prison violence, including homosexual rape, it inadvertently turns another crucial issue into fairy-tale fluff: Tough as it is, Shawshank Prison is apparently color-blind. Black and white inmates act as if there's no difference between them--and no tension. Neither Hadley (Clancy Brown), the most sadistic guard in the place, nor Norton (Bob Gunton), the caricatured evil warden, even hurls a racial epithet. The fact that King wrote the original Morgan Freeman character as a red-headed Irishman provides no excuse for the moviemakers; ignoring the race of black inmates in a maximum-security penitentiary simply doesn't make sense.
That's not the only deficiency. From the outset, the only two suspicions we have about our man Andy Dufresne is that he's innocent of murder and that he will use his wits trying to get out. But this deep thinker squanders his chance in the stupidest way imaginable--and that's due less to tragic flaw than to bad writing.
With a little more attention to detail and a little less to the marketplace, this might have been a great prison movie. For two and a half hours we feel the oppression of confinement and the urge toward freedom. A couple of compelling subplots--notably ancient parolee James Whitmore's struggle with the outside world--provide even more texture.
But the movie collapses in sentiment. In the end, Darabont seems most interested in delivering a stock message about virtuous people in an evil world--he goes for Forrest Gump fantasy instead of real life. Certainly, none of the models for The Shawshank Redemption depended on such a gooey center. But then, Stephen King is no Charriere. The packaged sincerity and feel-good emotion Darabont lays on just don't feel authentic, as much as we may want them to. Despite some terrific acting, we're finally put away in a prison of sweetness and light.