At the heart of this extraordinary movie is a brilliant and indelible performance by Morgan Freeman as Red, the man who knows how to get things, the “only” guilty man at Shawshank prison. He was nominated by the Academy for Best Actor in 1995 but didn’t win. (Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump.) What Freeman does so beautifully is to slightly underplay the part so that the eternal boredom and cynicism of the lifer comes through, and yet we can see how very much alive with the warmth of life the man is despite his confinement. Someday Morgan Freeman is going to win an Academy Award and it will be in belated recognition for this performance, which I think was a little too subtle for some Academy members to fully appreciate at the time.
But Freeman is not alone. Tim Robbins plays the hero of the story, banker Andy Dufresne, who has been falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Robbins has a unique quality as an actor in that he lends ever so slightly a bemused irony to the characters he plays. It is as though part of him is amused at what he is doing. I believe this is the best performance of his career, but it might be compared with his work in The Player (1992), another excellent movie, and in Mystic River (2003) for which he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
It is said that every good story needs a villain, and in the Bible-quoting, Bible-thumping, massively hypocritical, sadistic Warden Samuel Norton, played perfectly by Bob Gunton, we have a doozy. I want to tell you that Norton is so evil that fundamentalist Christians actually hate this movie because of how precisely his vile character is revealed. They also hate the movie because of its depiction of violent, predatory homosexual behavior (which is the reason the movie is rated R). On the wall of his office (hiding his safe with its ill-gotten contents and duplicitous accounts) is a framed plaque of the words “His judgment cometh and that right soon.” The irony of these words as they apply to the men in the prison and ultimately to the warden himself is just perfect. You will take delight, I promise.
Here is some other information about the movie that may interest you. As most people know, it was adapted from a novella by Stephen King entitled “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Rita Hayworth figures in the story because Red procures a poster of her for Andy that he pins up on the wall of his cell. The poster is a still from the film Gilda (1946) starring her and Glenn Ford. We see a clip from the black and white film as the prisoners watch, cheering and hollering when Rita Hayworth appears. If you haven’t seen her, check out that old movie. She really is gorgeous and a forerunner of Marilyn Monroe, who next appears on Andy’s wall in a still from The Seven Year Itch (1955). It’s the famous shot of her in which her skirt is blown up to reveal her shapely legs. Following her on Andy’s wall (and, by the way, these pinups figure prominently in the plot) is Rachel Welsh from One Million Years B.C. (1966). In a simple and effective device these pinups show us graphically how long Andy and Red have been pining away.
Frank Darabont’s direction is full of similar devices that clearly and naturally tell the story. There is Brooks (James Whitmore) who gets out after fifty years but is so institutionalized that he can’t cope with life on the outside and hangs himself. Playing off of this is Red’s periodic appearance before the parole board where his parole is summarily REJECTED. Watch how this plays out at the end.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins is excellent. The editing superb: there’s not a single dead spot in the whole movie. The difference between the good guys (Red, Andy, Brooks, etc.) and the bad guys (the warden, the guards, the “sisters,” etc.) is perhaps too starkly drawn, and perhaps Andy is a bit too heroic and determined beyond what might be realistic, and perhaps the “redemption” is a bit too miraculous in how beautifully it works out. But never mind. We love it.
All in all this is a great story vividly told that will leave you with a true sense of redemption in your soul. It is not a chick flick, and that is an understatement. It is a male bonding movie about friendship and the strength of character, about going up against what is wrong and unfair and coming out on top through pure true grit and a little luck.
Bottom line: one of the best ever made, currently rated #2 (behind The Godfather) at the IMDb. Don’t miss it.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book “Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can’t Believe I Swallowed the Remote!” Get it at Amazon!)