Press "Enter" to skip to content

Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Directed by. Frank Darabont

Premise: Based on a novella by Stephen King. A man wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife (Tim Robbins) befriends a fellow prisoner (Morgan Freeman) while in the penitentiary. The two men attempt to survive the grind of prison life by nurturing hope.

What Works: When The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994 it was well reviewed but it was a box office disappointment. In the twenty years since it has found an audience, primarily through near constant play on basic cable networks, and it is now one of the most popular and highly regarded films of all time. In that process the movie has lost the benefit of little or no viewer expectation and now must satisfy a legendary reputation. Despite those daunting anticipations, The Shawshank Redemption remains a movie that lives up to the hype. One of the many interesting things about this picture is its style; the film is a strange amalgam of the classic Hollywood studio era and contemporary filmmaking styles. The movie is set in the 1940s and it has the flavor of that time, lending it an old Hollywood feel. It also has the sincerity of classic Frank Capra movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and it lacks the cynicism of later films. At the same time, The Shawshank Redemption is quite brutal and it is shot with dramatic lighting choices. The film is a byproduct of two very different moviemaking approaches but rather than offsetting each other, these various elements complement one another and result in a film that is simultaneously classic and modern. Despite the fact that The Shawshank Redemption is often a very dark movie, this is a picture about hope. Tim Robbins’ character loses everything and is to be imprisoned for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. From there the moviemakers set him on a course in which he nurtures hope; that vison of hope shatters the numb contentedness of Morgan Freeman’s character. Whenever filmmakers go for hope they invite cynicism on the part of viewers and rightly so. In daily life hope is often employed by politicians, marketers, and assorted snake oil salesmen in bait-and-switch schemes to entrap the desperate and the gullible. Storytellers frequently abuse the audience’s desire to hope with stories that provide simple solutions to complex problems or give the false impression that people can go through life unscathed. The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about hope but it’s a credible hope; the characters played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman may find a better life for themselves but their reward comes at high risk and at considerable cost. These men, and the movie itself, earn their hope and so The Shawshank Redemption gives the viewer a conclusion that is sound and satisfactory.

What Doesn’t: Movies are sometimes adversely impacted long after their release because of viewers’ other cinematic experiences. The Shawshank Redemption runs headlong into the rise of actor Morgan Freeman. Even before his role in Shawshank, Freeman had made a niche for himself by playing wise elder characters in Glory and Lean on Me but after Shawshank Freeman was permanently typecast and since then he frequently provides narration in feature films and documentaries; his voice is so familiar that it’s become a joke. The filmmakers of The Shawshank Redemption used Freeman in his characteristic style before he was overused. Nevertheless, viewers coming to Shawshank twenty years later may be unimpressed by Freeman’s performance because it’s so familiar from his later roles. The logic of The Shawshank Redemption does not always hold up to post-viewing nitpicking. Some of the plot twists are absurd or take liberties with logic and credibility. This is especially true of the climax but the moviemakers have so successfully put the audience on the side of Tim Robbins’ character that the movie gets away with a few incredulous storytelling choices.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, image gallery, interviews, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: The Shawshank Redemption is a modern classic. The popularity of this picture is not only due to its great performances or its filmmaking craft, although those qualities are considerable. The Shawshank Redemption is so well loved because it entertains the unfashionable idea of hope and presents it in a way that is neither corny nor cynical.

Episode: #508 (September 14, 2014)