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The Shawshank Redemption
1994 - R - 142 Mins.
Director: Frank Darabont
Producer: Niki Marvin
Written By: Frank Darabont
Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown
Review by: John Ulmer
   
Like many great films, "The Shawshank Redemption" is one that grows better with age. It was released in 1994, only to gross $18 million dollars. But it was on home video where it found its audience, and on home video where it started to grow -- both in terms of greatness and familiarity. It is on the Internet Movie Database's list of the top 250 films ever made where it stands as no. 2, and it is in the hearts of many where it continues to thrive.

It is the most basic of all principles of filmmaking: A story of redemption. This time the story is set inside Shawshank Prison, where successful banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sent to during the 40s, after being falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover. The jail veteran, Red (Morgan Freeman), sees Andy being forced through the front gates of the jail on his first day of arrival and sees him as a weakling. Red even makes a bet with the fellow inmates that he won't last. He's wrong.

Andy does last, and becomes an inspiration to all of those behind bars. The warden of the jail, Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), is intent on bringing down Andy and his uplifting ways, as all villains always are. But, as we soon learn throughout the years during Andy's jail sentence, nothing can bring him down.

That is the prevailing message, I suppose. The redemption comes two-fold -- Andy is given time to reflect upon his life in Shawshank, and Red (who is obviously deeply moved by Andy's influence) learns a thing or two, going through a cleansing process. We see the gradual change, too -- first Red is the cynical veteran, then the curious insider, then the close friend, then the surprised object of redemption. As strange a title it may be, "The Shawshank Redemption" is a worthy one.

Part of the greatness of the film, and what compels it towards repeat viewings, is the mystery of its main focus, Andy. Not much is explained about him, and even behind the bars he is quiet and reserved. We get the feeling that behind his sparking eyes there is a lot going on -- we just don't know what.

The primary character of the story is Red, and after the opening credits we basically see through Red's point of view for the rest of the running time (including the voice-over narrative). He senses the mystery surrounding Andy, like us, and the two share an odd sort of friendship throughout the tale.

"The Shawshank Redemption" bears resemblance to Clint Eastwood's "Escape from Alcatraz," another terrific prison film -- only that one is (partially) based on a true story, and "Shawshank" is not. On my last viewing of "Escape from Alcatraz," I noticed some uncanny similarities between the two -- even down to a shower scene -- but I suppose it was incidental enough. What separates the two films, however, is the distinct line between fantasy and reality -- "Escape from Alcatraz" is the cold hard truth, whereas "The Shawshank Redemption" is a feel-good, cleansing motion picture, driven by the type of stuff Hollywood was intended to be about in the first place.

I'm not undermining the film. I'm applauding it. It takes an odd sort of genius to turn a disturbing jail story into a clean, good-natured, uplifting one. This is a tale that will touch all audiences, I think, primarily because it is so honest, dazzling and refreshing -- the reality of it all is irrelevant. That is not the film's point.

Stephen King has always been an author of fantasy, whether it be horror (his expertise) or thriller (I consider the novel "Misery" his finest, and most realistic, although it still runs on the verge of fantasy). I must admit that I am not a very big fan of King, having read a fair share of his books, but they can be given good big-screen adaptations given the right director. King held off on "Misery," his favorite work, because he didn't want it turned into something like "Pet Cemetary." Rob Reiner (who had previously directed "Stand By Me," often considered his finest film adaptation) eventually took the project and turned it into the white-knuckle thrill ride it is today.

So it surprised everyone when the director's chair was given to Frank Darabont over Rob Reiner. Darabont had written a few television episodes of "Young Indiana Jones," but apart from that his resume was quite empty. Yet he turned out an amazing film that took charge at the 94 Oscars, running against "Forrest Gump" for Best Picture.

The film was written and directed by Frank Darabont, who adapted the screenplay from Stephen King's short story named "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." Five years later, another prison tale of King would be released to the big screens across the world, and it would also be penned and directed by Frank Darabont. "The Green Mile" starred Tom Hanks, and it was similar to "The Shawshank Redemption" in a lot of ways. As much as I enjoyed "Shawshank," the better of the two is quite obvious to me.

As I said in the opening of this review, like all great films, "The Shawshank Redemption" grows finer with age. It's just one of those films -- epic, touching, and certainly a fine motion picture in any respects. It is reminiscent of an older type of Hollywood film, and it is one that has caught the interests of both the old and young filmgoers. If only all films released were half as good as "The Shawshank Redemption," I don't think there would be half as many complaints about lack of quality as there are today.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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