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THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, James Whitmore
Director:  Frank Darabont
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  December 2, 2008

"It's my life.  Don't you understand?  It's MY LIFE!!"

Film ****

The Shawshank Redemption was one of the best films of the 90s, 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 movie has a very deliberate cinematic style that makes use of the dank and lower light prison interiors effectively.  On Blu-ray, the high definition transfer keeps the contrast levels strong throughout, and the colors faithfully intact, even though the schemes are frequently muted apart from a few more brightly lit outdoor scenes.  There is a very small amount of noticeable grain here and there in some of the darkest scenes, but hardly enough to be a distraction.

Audio ****

With a TrueHD track, the sounds of the prison really come alive.  Much of the soundtrack is dialogue oriented, but I was pleased at the ambience the surrounds offered...noises here and there, such as doors clanging shut, voices, footsteps and so on.  A few scenes are more intense and deliver the dynamic range that is almost startling in contrast...nicely done!

Features ***1/2

This disc includes a terrific commentary from Frank Darabont, one of my favorites to listen to, because he's always thoughtful, informative, and pleasant, as well as generous with his memories.  There are two featurettes, on on the making of the movie, and one a retrospective look back.  The Charlie Rose interview with Darabont, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is included, as well as the spoof "Sharktank Redemption", a trailer, and stills and collectibles galleries.  The Blu-ray is also nicely packaged as a book with 33 pages of photos and more from the movie.

Summary:

The Shawshank Redemption is a powerful, thoughtful film that excels in all areas.  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.

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