WARNING: This review contains spoilers for "The Shawshank Redemption."
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
25 years ago, an adaptation of the Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” hit the big screen to decidedly mixed results. Despite overall positive critical reception, a confusing title and a director without much of a reputation led to disastrous box office results and an overall box-office bomb of a film.
However, seven Academy Award nominations, record VHS sales in 1995 and a passionate and dedicated cult following later, "The Shawshank Redemption" has risen from its early box office ashes to become one of the most dearly-beloved and critically-heralded films of all time and a testament to the power of home video and movies on television.
It also serves as a brutally real portrayal of life in prison, a hauntingly melancholic story of a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and a beautifully hopeful example of human spirit and determination. The story of Andy Dufresne is one of distrust, growth, sadness, rebellion and, most of all, hope.
The story is relatively simple. Banker Andy Dufresne, portrayed by Tim Robbins in a performance that is somehow quietly explosive in both its emotion and lack thereof, has been tried and found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary for a life sentence. There he meets Ellis “Red” Redding in what might be the defining performance of Morgan Freeman’s career and develops a dear friendship, all while plotting his eventual escape from the walls of Shawshank.
This simplistic plot gives way to a beautiful exploration of human spirit as Andy Dufresne is put through the ringer. He is physically abused, forced into solitude, raped and, yet somehow, keeps the same ferocity and sarcastic edge he arrived with, rising up in the ranks of the prisoners to be a sort of leader. The tenacity and stubbornness of the human spirit has never been more beautifully portrayed.
On the other side of the coin, however, is the proof of how horrible human nature can be, as Bob Gunton’s Warden Samuel Norton and Clancy Brown’s Captain Bryon Hadley bring forth a sense of cold-blooded and iron-fisted tyranny to the screen.
The relationship that develops between Dufresne and Red is what really sets this film apart from all others. The chemistry between Robbins and Freeman is undeniably engaging, and there’s a sort of sad understanding that prevails throughout the film between the two of them as they grow together and learn from each other’s thoughts and actions. Strangers become friends. Friends become brothers.
On a technical level, "Shawshank" is a film often imitated but never replicated, from Darabont’s sure-handed direction and naturalistic, hopeful script, to the beautiful and perfectly captured cinematography of Roger Deakins, to Thomas Newman’s simultaneously haunting and hopeful score. Each frame is dripping with equal parts of claustrophobia and freedom, oppression and hope.
The walls of Shawshank seem to close in on the inmates and bring an undeniable sense of dread so familiar to fans of Stephen King, yet they also feel like home. It comes to a point where the concept of freedom is almost terrifying to the prisoners, yet it remains so enticing and mandatory to Dufresne. His character almost personifies the concept of hope, and the film benefits dearly from it.
It is this sense of hope that truly defines the film. I first saw "Shawshank" during a rather tumultuous move, as my family relocated from Florida to Virginia. I had to leave behind some of the best friends I had ever made, a home that I truly loved and a sense of identity I had developed during the four years my family had lived in Virginia. Moving absolutely tore me apart, and there were points where hope seemed like a pipe dream.
I, on a whim, watched "Shawshank" when we first arrived in Virginia and found myself in tears. Whether it be Andy’s heartbreaking arrival or his desperate attempt to acquire Bohemian-style beer for his fellow prisoners or his eventual escape through miles of sewage pipes, the message of hope that prevailed through 20 years of imprisonment inspired me beyond all belief and still keeps me moving forward to this day.
Just like its central character, "The Shawshank Redemption" seemed dead on arrival and received little to no attention upon release. However, a quarter century later, hope prevailed, and the film stands tall as one of the greatest cinematic achievements the world has ever seen. “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” This film lives on and will continue to be busy livin’ in the halls of cinematic glory.