King Of The Clink
Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows takes a look at the 25th anniversary of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption with assistance from Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman…
When Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption was released back in 1994, the writer/ director was a relative unknown. He had worked as a scripter on T.V.’s The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles but he had no track record in film. Based on Stephen King’s short story Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, the film garnered a range of impressive reviews but it didn’t do particularly well at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster: even in those days before Marvel, cinemas were mostly dominated by the likes of Terminator and Jurassic Park which were big-screen spectaculars. This was a low-key drama about the friendship of two prison inmates. However as the years have passed, The Shawshank Redemption has found its way into many of the best movie lists on websites and magazines.
2019 sees its 25th anniversary, and in the intervening years cinema has changed almost beyond recognition since its release. So why do people still speak fondly about this film all these years later?
One could argue that this film comes from the prison movie tradition of classics like Escape From Alcatraz, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, The Birdman of Alcatraz or Papillion. However, there is a warmth and humanity to The Shawshank Redemption that these films, all revered in their own way, don’t possess. From the moment we are introduced to Andy DuFresne (Tim Robbins) through to us seeing him encounter Red (Morgan Freeman), taking bets on who will survive the night, there is a connection with these characters. Darabont creates the chemistry between DuFresne and Red with such proficiency, that it is as if he’s been directing memorable dramas all his life.
The rest of the film builds on the relationship between the pair: Freeman’s Red is the cynical, weather-beaten counterpoint to Robbins’ likeable, naive banker – their relationship practically mentor / protégée. And the cast of supporting characters is tremendous – the sadistic chief of the guards Hadley (Clancy Brown) and the evil, manipulative warden, Norton (Bob Gunton) are compulsive turns. DuFresne grows on the audience as he acclimatizes to prison life and its relentless pitfalls, while Red, the conscience and curator of the movie, monitors his every step.
The director doesn’t stint on the supporting characters either. Norton is an authentically sadistic antagonist, primarily there to crush Andy’s spirit, as is Hadley. Darabont doesn’t shy away from the visceral brutality of the place either with scenes such as Andy’s attempted rape being particularly harrowing. While cinematographer Roger Deakins brings Shawshank’s hermetic, labyrinthine purgatory to life with deft aplomb, his broad colour palate leavening the bleakness with warmth, the prison block a character in its own right.
The story is an inventive one, foreshadowing what is to come but doing it subtly and with panache. Brooks’ institutionalized Hatlen, played with subtle authenticity by veteran James Whitmore, is released from prison but is hopelessly out of his depth in a changed world . This is paralleled by Red’s exit from Shawshank, but Red, as we know, represents hope, and like Andy, survival.
The script contains a number of memorable lines of dialogue but I didn’t realise that many of them come from King’s original text. It is testament to the dramatic power of King’s story, contained in a concise 86 page novella, that showcases his unique abilities as a writer. I had never read the short story until this week and although many aspects of it are changed for the film, the essence of the tale remains true in Darabont’s script.
The Shawshank Redemption is also a fable with elements of magic realism and wish fulfillment. It looks at how somewhere like Shawshank Prison, a dark and foreboding place, designed solely to crush its occupants, becomes an unlikely place for optimism, hope and transcendence. Indeed, Andy and Red are redeemed, but it is through a seemingly endless rite of passage that offers little beyond existence.
And then there is Andy’s escape – a pivotal moment in cinema history which is handled with exquisite attention to detail, its hard-won moment of gritty, impossibly earned salvation a rebirth for the leading character, and a rare example of unvarnished euphoria in the medium that works superbly. The escape sequence was entirely Darabont’s vision, and is as powerful a dialogue-free scene as one could witness.
The Shawshank Redemption is a film that makes you smile, makes you cry and restores the viewer’s faith in humanity. The end of the film, which is very similar to King’s conclusion, still brings a lump to one’s throat even after repeated viewings. Darabont went on to make The Green Mile, another brilliant Stephen King adaptation which covers similar ground. There is a reason why people continue to talk about this movie 25 years after it was first released: it is a beautifully rendered film about the endurance of the human spirit, crowned by two career-defining central performances, rounded out with one of the best, most authentic supporting casts ever assembled.
Here’s the trailer for it too