1994 was a heck of a year for films. It featured three that made it onto the AFI list – Pulp Fiction (previously reviewed), Forrest Gump (previously reviewed) and The Shawshank Redemption. It also was the year that Quiz Show came out, which I feel likely also deserved a spot on the list, although it didn’t make the cut.
The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of the fictional Shawshank prison in Maine in the 1940s through the 1960s through the eyes of Andy Dufrense (played by Tim Robbins), a banker who is wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder and Red Redding (played by the incomparable Morgan Freeman, who also narrates the film) who is serving a life sentence. The film opens with ambiguity – we aren’t sure if Andy did it or not and quickly moves into the brutal realities of prison life – sadistic guards, gangs of rapists, beatings that break a man. Red gets Andy and some of his other buddies work on an outside work detail and a key turning point is when Andy offers to help a guard with a tax issue in exchange for a few beers for the crew. This quickly becomes Andy’s calling cards and he helps all of the guards with their taxes. In exchange, they beat one of his tormentors within an inch of his life and nobody bothers Andy anymore. Andy gets reassigned to an easier job working in the library under Brooks, an older long-time inmate there. Andy writes letters to the State Senate trying to get more funds for the library and ultimately succeeds in getting funding. Brooks gets parol, but can’t take life on the outside and hangs himself. The warden launches a new prison labor program and enlists Andy to help him embezzle and launder money from the program, which Andy does, filtering funds to phony accounts with a fake name. Andy starts mentoring a young petty thief who has joined the prison, Tommy, to pass his GED. Tommy confides in Andy that a former cellmate of his confessed to killing Andy’s wife. Andy asks the warden to help him investigate this, but the warden angrily sends him to the hole and arranges to have Tommy killed, to keep Andy incarcerated. Red talks to Andy who tells him about a spot in a cornfield, under a rock that Red should go look if he is ever paroled and says that if he ever gets out, he is going to head down to a beach town in Mexico. Red thinks Andy is suicidal and worries about him all night. It turns out that Andy has escaped – he had slowly dug a tunnel behind a pin-up picture in his cell and crawled through that tunnel into a sewage pipe to escape. Andy goes around and collects all the money, representing himself as the imaginary account holder. He makes his way down to Mexico and sends that authorities information on the warden’s embezzlement. The warden takes his own life. Red eventually gets parole and makes his way to the cornfield, only to uncover a note from Andy asking him to join him in Mexico, along with some money. The last scene is Andy and Red reuniting on the beach in Mexico.
This is a powerful film – the acting performances are, as you would expect from the two leads, top notch. Morgan Freeman is perhaps the best narrator who ever lived. And the story strikes an impressive balance – it portrays the brutality of prison life without descending into hopelessness, it gives you characters to root for who are deeply imperfect and it builds a highly believable friendship between Andy and Red that doesn’t feel at all forced. It is on the long side at 140 minutes, but honestly zips by. Of all the films on the AFI list, this is the one that I hear most frequently cited by causal movie watchers as their favorite and for good reason – it has something to say and deep, rich characters but is never too heavy-handed or opaque.
Is it flawless? Of course not – the villains in the film are a bit on-dimensional – the warden would be more interesting if he had some redeeming qualities and the brutal pack of rapists are presented without complexity. Some of the plot elements are a bit questionable in their validity – how can Andy possibly know that all the landmarks that he is giving to Red even still exist 20 years in? There also seems to be intentionally almost no effort to age the characters with the passing of time – it is disconnecting to see Andy look the same age 20 years into his prison sentence that he does the day he arrives. But these are minor flaws in a film that has so much going for it. The Shawshank Redemption is an all time great film because it tells a compelling story well and creates a meaningful and lasting emotional connection between the viewer and the characters in the film. And in the end, isn’t that why we watch movies?
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 8/10
Total Score: 35/40