**/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras A
starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler
screenplay by Frank Darabont, based on the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
directed by Frank Darabont
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. There's a moment in the middle of writer-director Frank Darabont's commentary track for the tenth-anniversary DVD and now Blu-ray release of The Shawshank Redemption in which he marvels at how swiftly and completely that Christian fundamentalists embraced the film (thus allying it with other modern klatch classics like Christmas with the Kranks, The Passion of the Christ, and George W. Bush). He feared, he says, that because the demonic warden Norton (Bob Gunton) is the film's only overtly Christian character, the herd would flock to decry it. Apart from his shocking disingenuousness (if there's a more blatant Christ parable than The Shawshank Redemption, I don't know what it is), Darabont obviously doesn't understand that for the reborn mind, the longer the climb, the better the proselytizing--hence the desertion, the nepotism, and the DUIs actually augmenting Dubya's holiness instead of casting suspicion on it.
Besides, no bad deed goes unpunished in The Shawshank Redemption. It's not New Testament stuff, this film; the second part of the Good Book is, after all, crammed every inch with liberal garbage like compassion and sacrifice (small wonder Christ in the Western tradition resembles a hippie). No, The Shawshank Redemption is juicy Old Testament Word, where a prison queen archetype is rewarded for raping Tim Robbins's neo-Christ banker (money lender!) Andy with an eye-for-an-eye savage beating, partial paralysis, and every minute until the end of his days drinking his meals through a straw. Not very Christian, this film of no forgiveness, and in a perfect world Darabont would have worried more about offending Christians with that (or the Warden's celebrated suicide, or head prison guard Clancy Brown's humiliating emasculation) than with the fact of one sadistic hypocrite of a bible-thumper.
The film's popularity is easy to understand: it parlays every single prison archetype with a level of Victorian chastity so extreme that it's possible to imagine this as an early Technicolor epic shot in the waning days of the studio era. With the exception of stray blue language (which should prevent this picture, if certain right-wing fanatics forever have their way, from finding its way to network television unabridged--I'm looking forward to my daughter turning on the TV some Easter night to watch the unexpurgated The Passion of the Christ, though, as it doesn't contain a single "fuck"), The Shawshank Redemption is as coy and retreating as a Doris Day melodrama, albeit one with the single-mindedness of a rape-revenge picture. (Think of Deliverance and the thrill of the piercing of the hillbilly rapist right after he has pierced Ned Beatty.) Andy the hero is wrongly accused and sent to a prison where he meets the usual suspects led by Red (Morgan Freeman), a character whose sole purpose is to marvel at Andy's resilience and offer a comfortable voiceover that smoothes over the uglier aspects of the piece. When Andy's getting gang-raped, for example, Red's honey-warm voice assures us that he wishes he could tell us that Andy got away, but life in a prison isn't a fairy tale. Except that The Shawshank Redemption is, for all intents and purposes, a fairy tale. Andy is the white knight, the warden is the evil wizard, and Red is a damsel in distress saved in the final scene with the promise of happily ever after.
The Shawshank Redemption is a Norman Rockwell painting about the inside of a prison starring a Christ figure who's crucified in the court of man, sent to a dark hole for a while, and reborn on the beaches of Mexico having inspired every apostle he's left behind to spread the gospel of his exploits. Of course, Andy is an assistant banker who screws the man for whom he's laundering bribes and extortions, flaunting the rules of man and the trust of his admittedly corrupt boss for no holier purpose than that he's smarter than everyone else. Holy or not, his story appeals to us a great deal because it first offends our sense of justice, then sates our desire for vengeance with the same dogged determination Andy exhibits in slowly burrowing himself out of prison over the course of twenty years. And yet prison in The Shawshank Redemption seems rather a bucolic place once Andy has dispatched the queers and expanded the library. The homosexual element is eradicable, the race element is never a factor (Red is the only black man at Shawshank in a given medium shot), the cruel guard is domesticated with a tax tip that saves the raging bull a bundle, and the warden is publicly shamed--moreover, he's encouraged to blow his mind out the back of his head before a picture of his daughter. Hurray for vigilante justice!
The craft that's gone into The Shawshank Redemption is, let's face it, considerable. Roger Deakins's cinematography is a marvel, with a number of tableaux (note the final rape inside a projection booth, for instance) lit so subtly and skillfully that it doesn't seem as if there's any light at all but for some mysterious glow emanating from the sides of the actors' faces. A sequence where Andy hijacks the prison PA and pipes Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" through the prison to the awe of the literally captive audience is a model of montage as well as the emotional centre of the emotional film (even if its lack of depth is exposed by a similarly-intended scene in Jules Dassin's amazing 1947 prison melodrama Brute Force), while Thomas Newman's soaring orchestral score captures just the right mood of overwrought and overripe. Robbins is fabulous and Freeman, as a character who can't exist anywhere but within the strict framework of this type of film, refashions a cliché to create a brand new cliché unto himself. See Red again right now if you want to in Million Dollar Baby.
But for all the talk of the power of hope in The Shawshank Redemption, what it preaches is a new hybrid religion extolling love with one hand while doling out punishment with the other. It's about blind faith in an anointed martyr who may, in the end, just be interested in the preservation of the self and his reputation (note that Andy doesn't effect his escape until he's betrayed by his benefactor, the warden). And its happy ending occurs because Red has forgiven Andy for leaving him to the dogs as the one person who might have known his plan (he's genuinely ignorant, but as we're often reminded, these prison officials aren't exactly stingy with the beatings and the sensory deprivations), and he's decided not to hope, but to honour his saviour's instructions to the letter at arguably the peak of his despair.
Awash with mixed messages and a disturbing sanctimony (bearing in mind there's nothing wrong with rape/revenge flicks unless the victim is positioned as a saint/saviour unsullied by his/her debasement and fury), The Shawshank Redemption has earned its loyal following with its ability to know exactly which buttons to push in these United States. (That and the fact that it's immensely entertaining--I enjoy it every single time I watch it, I just don't respect it very much.) It's a mirror of how the most vocal factions of modern organized Christianity have become a perverse, violent, intolerant abomination somehow capable of reading hatred and exclusion into the New Testament. What are the lessons learned by The Shawshank Redemption but that a film with neither nuance nor irony, a film shot in brilliant colour but cast in black and white, is easier to love than a film that challenges with complicated characters making the best of a complicated situation? (Like, say, Freeman's own Se7en.) A month or two removed from the re-election of one of the most divisive presidents in modern memory, we locate in the ten-year-old The Shawshank Redemption a canny predictor of The Passion of the Christ's success. Morality in 2004 is drawn in straight, brutal lines, and reserved, I'm afraid, for the anti-intellectuals in power, crippled, blinded, empowered as they are by unjustifiable victim complexes.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Originally released in 2008 as a Digibook and recently reissued in "steelbook" packaging that drops the Drew Struzan 10th-anniversary key art in favour of the theatrical one-sheet's iconic design, Warner's Blu-ray Disc of The Shawshank Redemption is starting to get a little musty. Recylcing the once-irreproachable master prepared for the 2004 Special Edition DVD, the 1.77:1, 1080p transfer has impressively glassy detail, but the mild grain on display looks not so much controlled as pressed into the image. Many scenes would probably benefit from a new colour grade to ease up on their purplish cast, although the velvety blacks seem to be so by design. The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track has aged with a bit more grace despite the limitations of a surprisingly hemispheric mix, which even during the rainstorm escape devotes most of the surround field to Thomas Newman's score. Bass is tighter and fuller than before--an easy thing to prove by toggling over to the inferior lossy DD 5.1 option.
An alternate audio track features Darabont in his commentary debut, and he comes off as homey and affable, willing and eager to give due credit to his collaborators--especially Stephen King, who apparently gave him crap for making Andy's escape hole too round. Sadly lost in the conversation is the idea of the rape-vengeance cycle--discussed eloquently in Carol Clover's flawed but compulsively readable Men, Women, and Chain Saws--often ending with a vaginal/anal rebirth, though I liked Darabont's revelations that an early cutaway to Andy's hands loading a revolver is actually an insert of the director's own. (It's the sort of anecdote that lends depth to interpretations of the text, something along the lines of Mel Gibson's being the hands that pound the nine-inch nails into Christ's palms.) While Darabont can get a little obsequious to no good effect (we know that Robbins and Freeman nail their respective roles), for the most he part bolsters our respect for him in a way that his subsequent films have not.
Constantine Nasr's "Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption" (31 mins., SD), a succession of talking-heads with key cast and crew. I was interested to hear Gil Bellows confirm that the picture is a religious experience for many, which, in all honesty, is a little frightening considering that the film is ultimately a medieval passion play--and the moral is "follow Andy." That idea of a surpassing religious epiphany masquerading as a professionally-mounted estrogen melodrama starring men is continued in "Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature" (48 mins., SD), a Channel 4 documentary that includes testimonials from "ordinary" people about how the film changed their lives and pointed them to the path of...what? I don't know--seizing the day? Getting busy living? Therein, Darabont recounts a lot of the same stories he tells in his yakker (among them Stephen King swearing that his novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption would never be adapted for the screen) while Sadler mentions that Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage, and Tom Cruise, for starters, were interested in the project. The participants concur that The Shawshank Redemption's was the best screenplay any of them had ever read or could conceive of reading again--where do you begin to argue with something like that? A shrug is the only possible response.
An episode of "Charlie Rose" (42 mins., SD) finds the venerable gabber presiding over a recent roundtable with Darabont, Freeman, and Robbins that's awkward and fawning in almost the same way that any instalment of "Inside the Actor's Studio" is, if not as well researched. Hilarity is reserved for the way that Darabont bemoans The Shawshank Redemption getting largely shut out of the 1994 Oscars because it was "the year of Gump!" (The films, in my mind, are pretty much interchangeable.) This is scarcely preferable to a junket roundtable, I fear, and expressly for the audience surprised to learn that Stand By Me is also based on a Stephen King novella--from the same collection! By all appearances, the guys seem to like each other a lot. Shrugging again.
Starring Freeman's son Alfonso, Natalie Van Doren's short film The Sharktank Redemption (25 mins., SD) re-imagines The Shawshank Redemption as a story set in cubicle hell. Van Doren follows the exploits of wage slaves working on the fringes of the Dream Factory as they look for little ways to rebel against the crushing inanity of publicity work, e.g., trading non-transferable party invitations, scanning Academy screeners for illegal dissemination, and working for a small collection of the world's biggest assholes in the faith that the term "no hope for advancement" actually means "a foot in the door." In the manner of a good spoof, The Sharktank Redemption understands the strengths (allegorical treatment of universal story) and weaknesses (long self-important dirge/diatribes) of its inspirations and skewers them with an affectionate persistence. The "Marriage of Figaro" sequence reconfigured as a mass-cc'd email with a list of alternative jobs is verily a stroke of genius.
Rounding out the platter: the movie's theatrical trailer, plus an animated "Stills Gallery" (HD) composed of half- to minute-long scored slideshows sorted by their emphasis on Robbins, Freeman, the supporting cast, "Tim & Morgan," or "Behind the Scenes" (the sole gallery cracking the one-minute mark at a staggering 3 minutes). Dropped from the 2-disc DVD are the storyboard galleries and the glorified advertisement for Sideshow Collectibles, while said trailer has been upgraded to 1080p. It appears that for now this steelbook edition is exclusive to Amazon Canada. Originally published: December 17, 2011.