Almost as Long as a Prison Sentence: Shawshank Redemption

Oct 24, 2001 (Updated Mar 22, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Robbins, camera, Rita Hayworth cameo, supporting cast

Cons:Freeman, long winded, talky, slow, tedious, where are Maine accents?

The Bottom Line: Competent first effort for Darabont, torpedoed by l-e-n-g-t-h and merely adequate performance by Freeman. Maybe the director's cut will edit 30 minutes of dead space out? We can only hope...

Put your faith in the Lord. Your *$$ belongs to me. Warden Samuel Norton

Shawshank is a prison, somewhere in Maine. The protagonist, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), is wrongly sent up with a double life sentence for murder of his wife and her lover. The tale is told in the third person, through the eyes of Red (Morgan Freeman) a lifer who sees Dufresne come and go after a nineteen-year stint in the big house.

The tale is one of hope and redemption, something sure to warm the cockles of any viewer’s heart.

Based on a short story by Stephen King, a celebrated author whose prodigious output is only exceeded by the mediocrity of its usual content. The story is adapted from King’s tale by screenwriter and first time director Frank Darabont. Darabont does a pretty good job of telling the story except he does not know when to quit. Where a skilled director would use a hint, Darabont comes down hard with a ham-handed scene graphically illustrating his point – often more than once. A case in point: everybody by now knows that there is homosexuality in prison – that is surely not a mystery in this day and age. Darabont introduces a gang of “bull queers” he calls the “sisters.” These fiends target Dufresne and succeed in molesting him, although he does put up a valiant fight. Later, the sisters get their comeuppance but Darabont feels it is necessary to show Dufresne’s ugly encounters with the thugs on numerous occasions, to the tune of about 30 minutes of screen time. Surely such a sideplot could be introduced and dispensed with in five minutes without sacrificing much in terms of relevant content. There are many more overplayed subplots lingered over by Darabont that frankly do nothing to advance the story or make it a better viewing experience. The ending of the film, while heartwarming, was a disaster as the viewer is required to watch the fuse sputter and burn for a good thirty minutes before the two-second payoff. Again, Director Darabont doesn’t know when to quit.

Casting was spotty, with Tim Robbins a great choice for the lead character, Dufresne. Robbins maintains viewer interest anytime he is the focus of attention, unfortunately a lot of the screen time is devoted to the narrator, “Red,” (Morgan Freeman) who drops pearls of cracker barrel wisdom a la Waylon Jennings’ narration of The Dukes of Hazzard. Morgan Freeman, while a decent enough actor in no way can stimulate my interest for very long with his bland, long-winded, homespun observations on the Dufresne character and prison life in general. I feel that Freeman’s performance was not strong enough to carry the amount of screen time assigned by the director. Bob Gunton, as Warden Norton the bible thumping hypocrite who runs Shawshank is a great asset to the film with his sly characterization of the unlikable tyrant. One of the best supporting roles I’ve seen lately was essayed by James Whitmore, as Brooks, the librarian at Shawshank. Brooks had a pet crow, much like the animal character Mr. Jingles Darabont used in The Green Mile. Brooks was released from Shawshank after about a half-century. Unfortunately, he was unable to adapt to life on the outside.

Dialog was a little harsh, although certainly authentic. I think the script could have used a few less %$#, &*%, and *%#$s without sacrificing impact.

Photography, by Roger Deakins, was very good, using good lighting and camera angles to tell the story. Film editing: two thumbs down, as the epic-length running time should have been trimmed by a good 30 to 45 minutes. Although The Shawshank Redemption is a creditable piece of cinema for Director Frank Darabont’s first stab at filmmaking, it is nowhere near the masterpiece that it is often proclaimed to be. I do give Darabont extra credit for including that clip of Gilda starring the incomparably sexy Rita Hayworth!

I recommend The Shawshank Redemption as a decent, feel good movie that deals with the tedium of prison life. For fans of the prison genre, I would also recommend Birdman of Alcatraz, Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile, and Papillon.

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