Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

Year: 1994
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 72
Writer: Frank Darabont (adaptation), Stephen King (novella)
Director: Frank Darabont
Star: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton

Movies concerning slight-of-hand and tricking the audience, as a rule, keep the audience at arm’s length emotionally because we expect the reversals. We know there will be double crosses. We’re looking for clues that set up that seeming out-of-nowhere twist. One of the many special things about “The Shawshank Redemption” is that you don’t expect the revelations of the final act, and instead of contradicting emotions set up previously, it only serves to deepen our existing emotions regarding the main characters.

Those main characters are Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins). They meet in Shawshank Prison after Andy has been sentenced to two life terms for the murder of his wife and her lover. Red is in prison for murder as well, a murder he freely admits to having committed. Andy, on the other hand, quietly insists that he is innocent, a statement laughed at by the been-there-heard-that inmates at the prison. Over the course of several decades, Andy and Red develop as close a friendship as two people could.

Though Andy is the one who ultimately does all the magical hoo-ha at the end, it is Red who narrates the story, as it should be. It’s Red’s story. The “Redemption” of the title isn’t Andy’s, after all, it’s Red’s. The film purposely keeps Andy at arm’s length throughout the film, and Robbins’ understated performance underlines this. We feel as if we know Andy is a good man, but he’s still an enigma we can’t quite get a grasp upon. Red spends the entire movie, even after they become close, trying to understand who his friend is, and through this narration we come to understand so much about Red as a person.

Darabont, working from a novella written by Stephen King, takes his time setting up the world and these characters as three-dimensional beings trapped in what at first appears to be a limbo state. This goes for the prison guards and administrators as well. They might not physically be behind those cell doors, but they spend their days trapped in the same hellhole the men are. Darabont uses the small character moments to surprise us. Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) is horrendously abusive and a bad, bad man, but he still allows the men time to enjoy their beer on the roof. Heywood (William Sadler) would be the prison idiot in any other film, but here he develops a personality and a set of morals. He might be slow, but he still does what he thinks is right. Even though the movie is almost two-and-a-half hours in length, it doesn’t feel long, because these small reversals in scenes surprise us and hold our interest throughout.

Because the characters are well-written, and because the acting throughout is spot-on, we don’t notice all of the small clues and tiny bits of information Darabont is feeding us. The most explicit the screenplay gets in playing its hand is when Andy has a long moment with Red explaining how he’s created an alternate person out of thin air to keep the Warden’s (Bob Gunton) illegally obtained money safe. I’ve seen the movie several times and there are still small details and the briefest of exchanges I pick up on here and there that underline just how brilliantly Darabont structured his screenplay.

It’s not that the pay-off was so ingenious and so well set-up throughout the first two acts, though. It’s also that it represents everything the movie has been building toward and feels like an honest extension of the plot and characters we’ve come to regard as people. The rarest of motion pictures (“House of Cards,” the underrated “Thomas Crown Affair” remake) can pull that off and get away with it.

In addition to Robbins’ terrific, understated performance, I was surprised to see just how subtle Freeman is here. He doesn’t play Red as an angry man who hates himself for what he did, which would have been the obvious way to do it. His Red is more torn down and acquiescent, not at peace with his actions but at peace with the fact that he’s going to pay for it with for most of his life.

Behind the camera, Darabont’s work is tremendous. Everyone remembers the two shots that set up the prison: the first is from helicopter and follows Andy’s bus toward the building before swooping around the imposing structure to follow the inmates walking across the yard toward the approaching vehicle. The second stares up the endless walls of the prison just before Andy walks in. But there is so much more. Darabont and his editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, allow the scenes to breath and the pace to remain steady throughout, even when it would be so simple to use quick-cutting.

Quibbles? A few small ones. The prologue showing Andy before his wife is murdered is needless, and since we can instinctually tell from early on that he’s innocent, why doesn’t Darabont actually show this in the prologue? There are other small point-of-view problems where we switch to Andy. Most of the time it’s fine because we imagine this is Red’s interpretation of certain moments and scenes that he assumes happened or was told to him, but in others there is no way Red would know. Oh, and it was pretty damn lucky that Andy got the cell on the end of the row, no? But again, these are quibbles.

It’s really a wonder this movie got made. Darabont was a first time director whose biggest credit was writing “The Blob” remake (which is really awesome, by the way). As far as I can tell, there’s three women in the entire film who are onscreen for about twenty seconds total. It’s two-and-a-half hours long. Freeman and Robbins weren’t marquee names. It’s a prison movie. The title is “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s meditative. There are no action scenes. And even though it’s based on a Stephen King story, it’s not scary enough to be marketed as a “Stephen King Movie.”

Thank God it did, though. “The Shawshank Redemption” works on a human level first and foremost, but it’s also one of the smartest and well-constructed films ever made. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully directed and perfectly acted. That’s the trifecta.

My Score (out of 5): *****

No comments: