February 1st, 2002

The Shawshank Redemption

Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, this appallingly entitled movie was initially faintly praised by critics. Roger Ebert gave it a polite 3 1/2 stars, others lazily regurgitated the production notes’ guff about its depiction of the triumph of the human spirit. Labouring in at 142 minutes, it did mediocre business at the box office.

It stars Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, a young New England banker imprisoned for murdering his wife. His opening years in Shawshank are made the more harrowing by a series of sexual assaults. However, he keeps his spirits afloat through his friendship with prison fixer Red (Morgan Freeman). He also falls in with Bob Gunton’s corrupt warden, whom he helps operate a financial scam. However, the warden turns against him when Dufresne finds a fellow inmate who can prove he was jailed unjustly.¬†All this time, however, Dufresne has been planning his escape, chipping away for 20 years at his dungeon wall with a tiny rock hammer until finally . . .

Shawshank took on a gigantic afterlife on video, doing extraordinary business by word of mouth, going down great not just among the Bridges Of Madison County reading types but jaded Tarantino-ites and the sort of hard-bitten cineaste cynics often most vulnerable to the cheapest sentimentalism. The Duchess Of York rather liked it too. By 1999 it was topping all-time greatest list polls – It was number 3 in Channel 4’s recent Top 100 movies. What was once regarded as a respectable but ponderous vehicle for Tim Robbins’ wobbly bottom lip, then, is now hailed as a cinematic milestone, as opposed to the long, po-faced, self-important streak of excruciatingly contrived, suffocatingly corny nonsense it actually is. One of Shawshank’s great masterstrokes is supposedly the casting of Morgan Freeman as the film’s narrator Red, an Irishman in the original novella. However, the casting reveals director Frank Darabont’s misty-eyed, insidiously quaint attitude towards “Blackness”, more fully revealed in The Green Mile, his derided follow-up to Shawshank. The casting of Freeman isn’t bold political correctness but intended to add a folksy, Uncle Remus-style warmth by association to Robbins’s Dufresne, who otherwise would be exposed for the cold, calculating, remote white fish he is. Freeman doesn’t actually break out into a chorus of “Zippedeedoodah” during his narration but it often sounds like he’s about to.

The fuzzy il-logic of Shawshank extends to the prison community. Shawshank apologists claim the film is partly an indictment of the evils of incarceration yet the inmates Robbins surrounds himself with must be vindication for the nasty warden’s methods because a more amiable, mild-mannered bunch you could not hope to meet (the homosexuals excepted, of course). Why, as lifers they must have committed some terrible deeds but judging by their on-screen behaviour they could slide meekly back into society tomorrow. When Dufresne subversively broadcasts Mozart to the prison yard they stand stock still in appreciation, rather than yell “someone turn that fuckin’ fairy-ass music off” like you imagine some jailbirds might. Moreover, this being an American prison in the Forties/Fifties, their lack of racism, lack of knowledge that such a thing as racism exists, does them extraordinary credit.

Shawshank is a world unto itself, where in 20 years no one seems to age more than six months, where when Dufresne describes a field as “like something from a Robert Frost poem” he can rely on his fellow con knowing what he’s talking about, where life hangs together by a series of ghastly, improbable coincidences, where you can escape through a hole in your cell wall and somehow tack back the poster than concealed it for several years neatly in place behind you.


Dufresne’s escape is far less a monument to Hope, more one to the belief-beggaring negligence of the Shawshank authorities. I’ve seen more convincing prison breaks in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Yet this is the catalytic event upon which the film’s supposedly immortal quotes and strap-lines hang – “Get busy living or get busy dying” or “Fear can hold you prisoner – hope can set you free”, lines so thoroughly cleansed of substance they insult even the intelligence of middle America. With its tinkling, lachrymose soundtrack, grandiose manipulation (culminating in Robbins’ barf-worthy Christ-like pose when he escapes) and utter disregard for the rules and limitations of the world we actually live in, Shawshank is an especially crass piece of Hollywood hokum whose slowness has been mistaken for gravitas, its sentimentality for sublimity. I cried. “Why didn’t they send him to the chair in the first ten minutes?”, I cried.

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