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THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman
Director:  Frank Darabont
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Stills Gallery
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  December 21, 1999

Film ****

The Shawshank Redemption was one of the best films of the 90’s, and thankfully, seems to have garnered more attention and appreciation as time has gone by.  It had the misfortune of quietly coming to theatres in 1994, where it was largely overshadowed by two other popular and critical favorites, Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction.  Despite being honored with seven Oscar nominations that year, it came up empty.  But that’s of little matter.

What does matter is that novelist Stephen King and screenwriter/director Frank Darabont created a thoughtful, strangely beautiful, and strikingly honest character study of two men serving life sentences in the fictional prison of Shawshank in Maine.  The wonderful script and impeccable direction are brought to visual life by two masterful performances in Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

One of the unique approaches of the film is to open the audience’s minds almost immediately.  When the film begins, we witness glimpses of Andy’s (Robbins) trial for murdering his wife and her lover.  We hear the evidence in court.  We see a few flashbacks to the night of the crime.  Andy maintains his innocence, but the viewers simply don’t know whether or not he really did it—and that fact is not made abundantly clear until closer to the end of the picture.  So when Andy is sentenced to life, we have no way of knowing if it’s justified or not.  We aren’t immediately drawn into rooting for the falsely accused underdog, nor are we ready to dismiss Andy’s confinement as being justice for a killer.  We have no choice but to watch Andy closely, and what happens to him, and for a marked period of time, witness what happens to him without judgment.

In Shawshank, Andy becomes friends with another “lifer”, Red (Freeman).  Unlike Andy, Red makes it clear that he is in fact guilty of murder, although the details of his crime are left sketchy at best…another good choice for Darabont.  Andy may be the principal character here, but his story is told through Red’s eyes, and thanks to the script and Freeman’s winning work, it doesn’t take long to warm up to Red’s character.

As these two men share a 19 year incarceration, the film explores prison life fully.  We see the horrors of cruel guards, uncaring wardens, and the abuse that can occur at the hands of other inmates.  But with Andy’s mind and spirit, we also see the less bleak moments, such as when Andy manages to create a functional library for the prison, or how he helps young wayward fellows to try for and pass their high school equivalence exam.

The passage of time is an important theme, and the way Darabont presents it is fascinating.  Nothing much changes inside the walls of the prison.  We observe the slight aging effects on both Andy and Red, how they get a little slower and a little more weary as the years pass.  However, two times we get glimpses of the outside world through the eyes of former inmates.  One in particular, and old man named Brooks, remarks in a letter to his friends how fast the world had gotten since his incarceration.  And one can’t help but think of the word “rehabilitate”, and how much it comes up in the movie.  On the surface, the word can simply mean that the prisoner has mended his ways, and learned his lesson, so to speak.  But on another level, it means a readiness to rejoin society.  It’s the part of the equation that’s sadly lacking, as those who have spent decades behind bars have no clue as to what awaits them on the outside…and little or no chance of ever fitting in again.

Red remarks about the prison walls at one point:  “First you hate them, then you get used to them.  Then, after a while, you get to where you depend on them.”  He suggests, and the movie corroborates, that after enough time has passed behind bars, there’s nothing much left for a man on the outside world.

The movie, despite a bleak subject matter and often harsh realizations, manages to maintain a true sense of the human spirit’s ability to triumph.  Andy remarks to Red, “You have two choices.  Get busy living, or get busy dying.”  Their world has little promise, but Andy’s ability to shine like a lamp in the darkness…no matter how faintly…has a positive effect on those around him.  And even a hardened timer like Red finds that there can be more to prison life than simply rotting away and waiting to die.

It is this spirit that has continued to win The Shawshank Redemption new fans, as well as repeat viewings from those who loved it the first time around.  It’s simply a well-made, written, and acted character drama that proves that the heart, the mind, and the soul can never be locked away.

Video ***1/2

This is quite an impressive job from Warner.  The print is especially clean, and given the wide array of lighting schemes, from daylit outdoor scenes to indoor prison sequences with virtually no light, the anamorphic transfer is nearly perfect throughout.  One or two of the very, very darkest scenes exhibit a faint amount grain…so faint that I’d wager it only detectable to the most scrutinizing eyes.  Colors are well defined and natural throughout, with no bleeding—remarkable given the many low light settings where only a few accents are present. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is also remarkable, and exhibits great dynamic range.  Much of the movie’s sound is low key, but with crisp and clear dialogue.  Then, some of the busier prison scenes, when gates and doors are sliding and banging from all corners, are vibrant and loud, and make for excellent contrast to the quieter moments.

Features *1/2

Fans are bound to be disappointed with Warner’s weak effort in this department, particularly after word had been out that the reason for the year long delay in this title was in order to include a commentary track.  Instead, all you get is a trailer and some stills.

Summary:

Features or no, The Shawshank Redemption is a powerful, thoughtful film that excels in all areas, and Warner has at least seen fit to offer a most commendable transfer.  This movie has touched the hearts of everyone I know who has seen it, and most likely, it will be one you’ll want to enjoy time and time again.