Think Twice: No Redeeming Values in The Shawshank Redemption

Let me just start off by saying that I respect the hell out of The Shawshank Redemption. As a journalist I adhere to the peculiar age old credo, one in which clearly outlines several important guidelines for all in the field to follow to better understand the subject matter. Because journalism’s first loyalty is to the citizenry, journalists are obliged to tell the truth and must serve as an independent monitor. One specifically important element in the journalist code is to remain balanced and objective, it’s the most basic principle there is to follow. And by that very objective standard, The Shawshank Redemption deserves a perfect five star rating; it’s gripping, poignant, humanistic, and generally sweeping. The acting is overall solid, the characters are quite touching, the dialogue is smooth, and the cinematography is appealing to the eye. Despite its length, the film never bored me, and for all of the story’s two and a half hours were there for a sound, significant reason. In retrospect The Shawshank Redemption is really an astonishingly well made film. By the way, I’m saying all of this without having seen the film in five years.

But I can’t help but feel there’s a false note in it. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly; I’m still a novice when it comes to film critiquing. But there’s surely a false note in The Shawshank Redemption somewhere. There’s something hollow about the film, and about the characters that inhabit it. There’s something a bit too pert and perfect about the story, something a bit too meticulously shambolic about the telling of the story and its themes. There’s something a bit too studied about the leads (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) performances, and about the performances of everyone else in the cast. The Shawshank Redemption is perfect, and therein lies the problem. I’m very aware that there’s a formula being applied here; writer/director Frank Darabont wanted to make a ‘great film’, one that would stand the test of time, rival such Hollywood classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so he decided to do so by telling an amazing humanistic story with lots of drama and emotion. He succeeded, but the resulting film, grand as it is, feels utterly contrived.

There might be genius in that, in the fact that The Shawshank Redemption can effectively move its viewers while still feeling completely false and hollow. Seeing as the film has enjoyed extensive amount of cable television play, I decided to revisit The Shawshank Redemption again in hopes to uncover some of these fallacies I speak of. Keep in mind that I haven’t seen the film in about five years so I’m not intentionally set out to cast the first stone but attempting to maintain my journalistic integrity. Still, almost immediately it is obvious that The Shawshank Redemption pulls out every cliché of American feel-good epic drama; a stoic hero, his two dimensional, world-weary black friend, and a rag-tag gang of misfit buddies square off against a corrupt, prissy authority figure and his goon. There’s also a James Dean Rebel Without a Cause character, a lovable old man, and some sodomy. It becomes evident on the dozenth viewing that The Shawshank Redemption is the epitome of average. It’s a film that starts off okay, but it gets so damn corny. Rarely have I seen prison so anesthetized as here in The Shawshank Redemption.

Seasoned inmate Red (Morgan Freeman), the narrator in The Shawshank Redemption, watches as the soft-spoken, vulnerable prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) undergoes the inevitable gang rape. Prison, Freeman tells the audience in that inimitably authoritative voice, “is no fairytale world.” However, in this case, Red is dead wrong. Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption from his collection Different Seasons, is a complete fairytale. The film is a sentimental yarn ball that unravels more and more with the darnedest twists and turns. The cinematography I mentioned earlier as being appealing is polished with that cheesy “long time ago” golden glow, and the inmates are just a bunch of cute pushovers I can see my grandfather hanging out with. And the worst thing about prison, according to The Shawshank Redemption, is dealing with all of the boredom.

As far as a prison drama is concerned, The Shawshank Redemption is no better than your made-for-TV film that features the trite ‘prison escape’ plot. In fact, it doesn’t seem all that concerned with the prison itself and is far too preoccupied with its gooey-eyed portrait of ‘humanity’ (or lack thereof) and abuse of power. “The Sisters”, who are portrayed as the bad guys in the prison, commit violent gang rape. But have no fear, the rapes are simply “implied” in the film so you don’t have to actually see them. Just a minute of HBO’s prison drama Ozfeels more like a prison than this whole film. The abuse of power aspect of the film comes from the Shawshank institution being run by corrupt warden Bob Gunton, a cliched sociopath despot who likes beating prisoners to death (to make a point) but will not abide religious blasphemy. Gunton is enthusiastically supported by sadistic guard Clancy Brown, who enjoys a regular round of assault and battery himself. But it’s pretty clear from the start that Andy Dufresne despite his hardships, is emotionally protected by his own innocence. He charms everyone and, eventually, parlays his business skills into a useful commodity. By the end, the grim authoritarians and jailbirds are eating out of his hand. In fact, Dufresne’s effect on everyone in the prison is so cheaply messianic, they should have, instead, called The Shawshank Redemption Forrest Gump Goes to Jail.

Despite all of its themes, messages and ridiculous sentimentality, there is nothing to be learned from The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne is a character you can’t relate to, no matter how hard the film tries. We follow him through his ‘redemption’ (as the title states) but his journey to it is far self-congratulatory. The Shawshank Redemption has been elevated in popular opinion to the status of masterpiece because of one irrefutable virtue: it is accessible. Regrettably, as is true in so many cases, popular opinion is an inaccurate gauge of this film’s actual quality. The reason this film has attained its current level of acclaim is that it is impossible to misinterpret its theme or message, impossible to be offended by it, impossible to be confused by. The story of The Shawshank Redemption is something I might expect if I was being pitched a script by middle school children. The complex coincidental frame up, the daring escape, the clear cut definitions of good and evil. The timeless friendship and uneventfully consummated on a beautiful shoreline. Each step more unsurprising than the last, each beat more platitude that the previous. Every time writer/director Frank Darabont feels like building tension or revealing something about the characters, they take the most obvious road. This might be excusable if the road didn’t also lead to the most obvious destinations.

Finally, The Shawshank Redemption makes it a little too easy on the audience by giving it all the answers. Is Andy Dufresne guilty? Does he really escape? Will he and Red ever meet up again? These should all be questions the audience should ask the film but nothing is left for the audience to wonder about, no ambiguity or imagination. Heaven forbid a film should end with a smidgen of mystery! The film doesn’t challenge its viewers. If anything, it undermines them, taking them for a fool. Everything is spoon-fed to the audience in tasty, happy-ending bites, right up to the final “hug on the beach” scene. Wait, this film ends with happy people hugging on a beach? Yes, it does indeed. Quite a redemption, wouldn’t you say?

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Filed under: Film, Think Twice

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Freelance writer based out of NYC with a focus in pop culture, music and film.