Warner Bros. // 1994 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Mike Jackson (Retired) // December 30th, 1999
At the judge's whim, the court will be diverging from its standard format to discuss an extraordinary film. It has been said that genius is not honored in its own time. Vincent Van Gogh was a failure, and yet his paintings are now priceless works of art. Many writers have died penniless, only to have their works treasured decades or centuries later. In the world of cinema, the trend can be seen in film classics such as The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane. Both films were neither critical nor financial successes in their own time, yet have gone on to be dear to the hearts of film lovers. The same can be said of The Shawshank Redemption. In today's media age, it is more difficult to go unnoticed, but this film's success pales in comparison to lesser films of that same year. The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but failed to win a single award. It lost to the likes of Forrest Gump, Speed, and The Lion King. At the box office, it has grossed only $28.3 million to date. The Lion King took in $66.5 million on its opening weekend. The Shawshank Redemption found its redemption, as it were, on home video. Now it is given the breath of digital life on DVD.
At the release of the DVD version of The Shawshank Redemption, there was much deliberation amongst the members of the court as to who would sit in judgment upon this film. Most of the judges felt quite strongly about the film, and cried conflict of interest. I, on the other hand, had not seen the movie until it arrived in the mail from my online DVD merchant of choice. In fact, I had seen Frank Darabont's directorial follow-up, The Green Mile, prior to viewing The Shawshank Redemption. In retrospect, my selection as judge was perhaps a poor decision, as I have now fallen under the film's spell.
At its heart, The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about hope. Hope can make you strong. It can give you the will to live, the motivation to fight, the desire to see another day. When you lose hope, you strip away every reason to take your next breath. Many situations cause hope to teeter on a razor's edge. Only the character of the individual dictates which way the balance will swing.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) was a man of strong character. He was an educated, intelligent vice president of a bank with a wife he loved. One day he discovered that his wife was cheating on him, and his life crumbled around him. In a drunken stupor and with a gun in hand, he went to confront the adulterous wife and her lover. He did not find them at the lover's house, so he went home to sleep off the booze. Next thing he knows, he is being convicted of the couple's murders. He was convicted upon the weight of highly circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to two life terms. He found himself incarcerated in Shawshank Prison, an icy and unforgiving environment very different than the world in which he had lived.
In the prison world, he made few friends, and through no fault of his own, many enemies. He was greeted at the prison by abusive guards and a warden given to saying things like "I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you'll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me." The prisoners took bets as to which one of the new prisoners would be the first to crack. Red (Morgan Freeman), a lifer with twenty years already behind bars, wagered that Andy would be the first. Red lost. Over time, Andy and Red became close friends. Red was one the prisoners who would arrange to smuggle items into the prison for other inmates. Andy requested two items: a poster of Rita Hayworth and a small hobby rock hammer.
Time is something there is quite a bit of in prison. Andy spent his years in various pursuits. His skill with numbers and finances came to the attention of the prison staff, and he was trusted with affairs of that nature for guards and for the warden. He took up the project of bettering the prison library. After many years, Andy took an undereducated prisoner under his wing so the man could earn his high school degree. That prisoner had been in a different prison previously for a different crime. He had had a talkative cellmate who had told him of committing a crime...the crime for which Andy was in prison. By this time, the warden had entrusted Andy with financial matters of a rather illegal nature. Needless to say, the prisoner got in the way of the warden's dealings and was eliminated. Through all of this, Andy did not lose hope.
To speak of the movie's plot any further would spoil its magic for those who have not yet seen it. You see, the film does not show all of the things Andy did to pass the time. He put the rock hammer and the poster of Rita Hayworth to good use. When you finally discover his fate, it is impossible to not feel the joy that exudes from the screen. Even in the darkest of places, hope can remain. I can say without reservation that The Shawshank Redemption is as close to perfection as a movie can dare to come. It is based upon a short story entitled "Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption," written by Stephen King. Known best for his horror yarns, King excels at writing character-driven, detailed plots. Of his work I have only read "The Green Mile" cover to cover, but I shall read this story posthaste. Frank Darabont has not been a prolific director, but his most significant films, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, have both been works of extreme craftsmanship. Tim Robbins is an acclaimed director in his own right, but has also established an acting resume that is rich with films as diverse as The Player, Top Gun, and Nothing To Lose. I consider Morgan Freeman to be the most underappreciated actor of our time. On many occasions, he has been the finest thing in the movies in which he has appeared, such as the bomb Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Driving Miss Daisy, a highly overrated film. After singing the praises of the leads, I must also state that The Shawshank Redemption is an ensemble piece. Not a single member of the cast is miscast or acts poorly. Of particular note are Bob Gunton (Demolition Man) as Warden Norton, Clancy Brown (Starship Troopers) as the demonic Captain Hadley, and James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, but I recognize him most for his Miracle-Gro commercials) as Brooks, an elderly prisoner who gives up hope after his parole. Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated score evokes just the right emotions without manipulating the audience.
Several of my fellow judges were disappointed by the treatment The Shawshank Redemption received in its move to DVD. Allegedly, Morgan Freeman recorded a commentary track, but Frank Darabont blocked its inclusion. He felt the movie spoke for itself. If that decision was made to preserve the film's "artistic integrity," I can respect it. Other extras are noticeably absent. Included are thirty production stills, talent files (only for the two stars and the director), and the theatrical trailer, which is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic. Personally, this judge is concerned more with the quality of the film itself and its audio and video transfer. Oftentimes, I watch a commentary track and any other extras only once when I first receive a disc. I will watch a good movie as many times as time allows. My primary concerns are dispelled in fine form with this disc. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic, and looks absolutely stunning. The only video flaw I could notice was moiré patterns caused by the fine stripes on the prisoners' uniforms. A minor quibble that may be moot on a higher definition television set. The audio was remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. My Poor Man's System does not allow me to judge the surround mix, but you can expect that the dialogue-centric film will sound sparkling-clear without taxing your system.
The Shawshank Redemption cannot be judged by the standards by which this court judges other films. No arguments or witnesses are necessary to weigh this film in the balance of cinematic justice. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Talent Files
* Production Photos
* Theatrical Trailer
* Mansfield Reformatory
* Roger Ebert's Review