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In order to create something out-of-this-world in nature, a director must approach it in the most meticulous manner, due to the delicacy of the process. Such a daunting task requires an extremely capable artist with an undeniable managerial capacity and an acutely developed awareness for each element of art in their films, the most prominent being music, visuals, script, and acting. These elements, each equally important, must succeed independently, yet still form a harmonious union because this mixture determines the fate of the artist’s opus. Though already well known amongst his colleagues for his notable skills at writing and directing, Frank Darabont truly delivers with his feature film directorial debut, The Shawshank Redemption. Already proving himself a master of the craft of filmmaking, not to mention his significant contributions to the recently revived all-time favorite Godzilla and the TV Series The Walking Dead, Darabont managed to create one of the most recognizable independent releases in Hollywood history. The Shawshank Redemption defines a genre, defies odds, compels emotions, and brings an era of artistically influential films back to Hollywood.
The story begins with the trial of a young banker, Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins), victimized by circumstantial evidence, resulting in his conviction for the murder of his wife and her lover. After a quick verdict, Andy finds himself serving a life sentence at Shawshank prison, with no hope of parole. He exists in this prison only in appearance, keeping his mind free from the drab walls around him. His ability to do this results in the gaining of respect from his fellow inmates, but most of all from Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman). Ellis, commonly referred to as Red, finds gainful use of his entrepreneurial spirit within the prison by dealing in contraband and commodities rare to its confines. Red does not think much of Andy at first, picking “that tall glass o’ milk with the silver spoon up his ass” as the first new fish to crack. Andy says not a word, and for losing his bet, Red resents him for it. Over time though, as the two get to know each other, they quickly become close friends. Andy’s demeanor and undeniable sense of hope causes Red to take a deeper look at himself, and the world around him. Andy proves to Red and the other inmates that in the conventional walls of Shawshank prison, convention finds no home in his lifestyle.
The opening aerial shots of the prison are a total eye-opener. This is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Immediately, the prison itself becomes a character. It casts its shadow over most of the film, with its tall stone walls stretching above every shot. It towers over the men it contains, blotting out all memories of the outside world. Only Andy holds onto hope. It is in music and in the sandy beaches of Zihuatanejo; “In here’s where you need it most,” he says. “You need it so you don’t forget. Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a – there’s a – there’s something inside that’s yours, that they can’t touch.” With all of the aesthetic touches and attention to cinematic detail, the most beautiful part of the film lies within its thematic material, such as its focus on the human desires for the most abstract concepts, like hope and freedom. These themes, which concern things the human spirit undoubtedly yearns, seem so intricately woven into the plot that it easily draws its audience into its story. Though full of hardened criminals, hearts will go out for these men as they display the most basic of human emotions, and deliver some of the most quotable lines in a film to date.
The film’s runtime of two hours and 22 minutes serves its purpose as well. As we spend the film watching the same actors, it is easy to forget that the movie’s timeline spans well over 20 years. Such a huge measure of time would pass slowly in reality, and would only be amplified in prison. It is not as if the film lacks interest in these moments; it still knows where it us going, and it merely intends on taking its sweet time getting there. It pays off as well, as the tedium of prison life makes the climax that much more exhilarating. For anyone who sees it, it is a moment never to be forgotten.
With work from vast array of talented scene designers, costume designers, composers, cinematographers, and various other Hollywood artists, the cast and crew of The Shawshank Redemption already had a strong foundation to work with. The marvelous cast of this film will dazzle with some of the most convincing performances in a film. While both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman shine as Andy and Red, respectively, the true spectacle of acting lies within the plethora of amazing supporting actors who easily disappear into their roles. Most noticeable of these, the veteran film star James Whitmore, who portrays the elderly Brooks Hatlen, a man incarcerated for an unmentioned crime for so long that he finds himself attached to the Shawshank and the inmates’ daily life in the prison. Each of these actors show a true dedication to their art, and a focused purpose in their motivations, creating a convincing setting that never once caters to anything unbelievable. This again, is one of the film’s major strengths.
Many movies are about love, many flicks have a side-kick to the hero, but The Shawshank Redemption is the only one that honestly looks at the love between two best friends. It seems odd that Hollywood would skip this relationship time and again, when it is a feeling that weighs so much into everyone’s day-to-day lives. Perhaps it is too sentimental to seem conventional, but core friendship of The Shawshank Redemption hits all the right notes, and the film is much better for it.
The Shawshank Redemption served as a message of hope to Hollywood as well. More than any film in memory, it proved there is life after box office. Besting Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, it ran solely on strong word of mouth and became one of the most rented films of 1995. It currently sits at second place in the IMDb’s Top 250 Films, occasionally swapping spots with The Godfather as the top ranked film of all time —redemption indeed.