One of the key components of being a film enthusiast is the act of actually seeing films. Some might say that it is the best, or most rewarding part. I am in a position different from most of the film writers on the internet (and there are a lot of them mind you), in that I am a high school student. This proves to be a double-edged sword. In one case, you have an entire century of film out there, waiting to be discovered. A treasure trove of movies that have already been indelibly enjoyed by generations of film fans, just waiting for you to view them for the very first time. Unfortunately it also means that few people will not want to take you seriously due to your lack of film experience. One could compare a film-enthusiast with a limited film-watching history to a winegrower, who is below the legal age to drink. It’s not that we don’t want to indulge, it’s just that we’ve never be allowed the chance to, due to the limiting factor that is our age. I am choosing to take the former perspective, as it is the more optimistic of the two, and wish to delve forward into the world of movies with a fresh mind and a not-yet jaded excitement. Which is why today I am going to discuss the first step of my journey to discover the world of film: The Shawshank Redemption.
The Shawshank Redemption is a curious film. It came out more than twenty years ago, in October of 1994. Yet unlike the arguably most famous movie to come out of ’94 (Forrest Gump), it has not fallen into the trap of becoming a “Movie for People Who Don’t Watch Movies.” In today’s modern nostalgia-heavy age, you do not have to have seen Forrest Gump to know virtually everything about it. If you walk into any elementary school in this country, and mention the eponymous character’s name, you will without a doubt find multiple students who will drop a quote in their best Gumpian voice, without having ever seen a single frame of the film. Everyone knows that Life is like a box of chocolates. Everyone knows the proper intonation of the name “Jenny” and will gleefully use it in place of a greeting to anyone they meet who shares Robin Wright’s character’s name. Shawshank, is a different story. Sure, it is regarded as a fantastic movie, yet it doesn’t seem pop culture-y enough to be used in everyday conversation. Going in to this movie all I knew was that it was about a prison, Morgan Freeman was in it, and at some point someone was going to drop to his knees in the rain. And that was it. Sure, I had heard the phrase, “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying,” but I had no idea that it originated from this film. So, for me at least, everything about this movie was a complete and magnificent surprise.
Odds are, I probably won’t say anything here that you haven’t already heard about Frank Darabont’s film. That’s not my intention anyway. I am hoping to take you back to 1994; to the way you felt when you saw this movie for the first time. The Shawshank Redemption is, and I can say this with utmost confidence, a masterpiece. The way Darabont directed this movie presents to the viewer a special kind of feeling. A feeling of engagement. As soon as the prison bus carrying Andy Dufresne arrives at the beginning of the movie, you feel as if you step off the bus with him. And yet, oddly enough, you don’t feel imprisoned. Shawshank Prison, while definitely a formidable environment filled with realistic threats, feels lived-in, familiar, as if it really exists. Yet we still remain wary of the facility when we first arrive, the same way Dufresne does when he is still considered just a “fish,” a phrase high-schoolers like myself are all-too-familiar with. The genius of Shawshank’s directing is that it feels entirely cohesive. The movie is telling a story, as all good movies do, and the images on screen, the sequences, the story elements, the shots presented all build on each other and grow along with the narrative, while still feeling as if they all belong in the same movie.
Speaking of narrative, I would say the biggest strength of Shawshank is its story. Based on a Stephen King short story, the tale that this movie spins is as timeless and enchanting as one could ever hope. Prison Break tales have been around since The Count of Monte Cristo and before, but The Shawshank Redemption keeps it fresh, by not just being a movie about escaping imprisonment, but more so a journey of, believe it or not, redemption. Andy and Red grow over the twenty years they spend in prison together, changing in the way great characters do. Learning a lesson of patience and salvation, while still remaining true to who they are at the core. Two men-two friends-who look at institutions entirely differently. Andy, as a place of corruption and demoralization, and Red, as a necessary evil meant to show men their true colors. I believe that it is because of the incredible storytelling that The Shawshank Redemption has found its place as one of the best movies of all time. It’s certainly the reason why I will be returning to it someday.
I found myself absolutely enraptured by this movie. When I sat down to watch it, I had my laptop open in front of me, with the intention of taking notes. For the duration of the two hour and twenty-two minute running time, I didn’t take a single note, as I was far too engrossed in the film. It was my first time seeing Tim Robbins onscreen. His portrayal of Andy Dufresne as a closed-off, calculating man, conflicted by his false-imprisonment was electrifying. It was truly fascinating to watch his character open up and become part of the institution that took his life from him, only to all of a sudden leave it all behind. This was however far from my first time seeing Morgan Freeman onscreen. Nor will it be my last. Yet I expect this will be my favorite experience with his acting. The man with the miracle voice drags you into the screen and envelops you in his performance. He is comforting in a place that is cold, conflicted in a place that is constricting and commanding in a place that is criminal. I adored Mr. Freeman’s portrayal of Red. In all honesty, I do not believe this movie would be the same without him.
I am far from the first person to see this movie. But I know that there will be more people after me. For that is the legacy of The Shawshank Redemption. It is an incredible adventure, start to finish, that never leaves you behind. I, like so many others, already wish I could go back in time, to view it for the first time, all over again.