His first night in the joint, Judge Ryan Keefer cost me two packs of cigarettes. He never made a sound.
"I must admit I didn't think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man."
Who would ever imagine that a two and a half hour long film about a prison would manage to endure as long as it has? Nevertheless, The Shawshank Redemption has assumed the mantle in many people's mind of being a modern classic, and helped make prison, I dunno, cool again? After a barebones release, Warner Brothers released a two-disc special edition a couple of years ago, and is now going back to the well in high definition. Would the sisters approve of this release?
Facts of the Case
Frank Darabont, who later adapted and directed Stephen King's The Green Mile into a film, adapted King's short story "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and directed here as well. The story tells the tale of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins, Arlington Road), who has been convicted for the murders of his wife and her lover, despite his claims of innocence, and is sent to Shawshank prison for the balance of his life. His prison term starts of slightly rough, the subject of assault by a group of certain prisoners, but eventually becomes friends with Red (Morgan Freeman, Batman Begins), who is also convicted of murder. Much of the rest of the film is focused on the two as their friendship grows, and on the people who come into and depart their circles of friendship and/or respect.
I was mesmerized the first time I saw Shawshank. Darabont is a master storyteller. First, he establishes an environment for characters to be introduced and developed over the course of time and the viewer can't help but be invested in their fates. For those of you that have seen it, remember how the third act played out? If you never read the story, could you see that ending happen the way it did, with such comeuppance and retribution? I sure didn't when I first saw it, but it was a marvel to behold. Aside from Andy and Red, you've got minor character arcs with almost half a dozen characters. The Warden (Bob Gunton, The Perfect Storm) is a cruel and heartless bastard, who believes that what he's doing is right and does it with an understated outward manner. His muscle is Hadley (Clancy Brown, Pathfinder), who swears in every sentence and threatens physical force, sometimes when necessary. There's a bevy of others on both sides of the fence that you meet and remember through the film.
This is in large part because of the Freeman voiceover, which is a constant during the film and helps serve a variety of purposes. It explains character motivations, passages of time (the film covers over two decades after all), and introduces a new viewer to what prison life was in King's story. Freeman brings gravitas to this component of the film, so much so that it's a minor cottage industry when it comes to films that he appears in. Only when the adventure is turned over to Red in the third act that the voiceover pretty much disappears. The viewer should marvel at the trip like Red does, and we manage to do so, and have done so in the years since the release. People tend to watch it so often that it borders Star Wars-like proportions, and there's no denying that with the film's resurgence on video and pay cable, there was certainly justification for it. Released in a year when Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump were dominating headlines, a gem or two was bound to be forgotten, and since its release, Shawshank might be edging Pulp out a little in terms of individual legacy.
From an extras perspective, everything that was on the two-disc edition is held over for Blu-ray, starting with Darabont's commentary. I thought he'd run out of steam being by himself on this track, but he brings quite a bit of information to the table and his recollection is actually quite good, and the track is a good complement to the film. The two featurettes are decent, if a little underwhelming. "Hope Springs Eternal" focuses on the production side of the film, while "The Redeeming Feature" explores the film's legacy in deeper detail. The lack of real participation from Robbins and Freeman is reconciled a little with a 2004 Charlie Rose interview which is included, and they have fun talking about the film again with Mr. Rose. "The Sharktank Redemption" is a lovechild of Shawshank and Swimming With Sharks, starring Freeman's son no less, but it's a little on the longish side. Some stills galleries and the film's trailer (in high definition) round the disc out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'd like to tell you that The Shawshank Redemption is breathtaking on high definition Blu-ray video, with its 1.85:1 widescreen presentation revealing a whole new layer of foreground detail that makes you revel in the wonder of Blu-ray technology, and a background depth and dimension that incites magic in the viewer's optic senses. I'd also like to tell you that the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is breathtaking, with effective speaker panning and directional activity that would result in an overwhelming sonic experience.
I'd like to tell you that…but I can't.
The Shawshank Redemption deserves better on Blu-ray. The extras are the same as the two-disc edition, save for the packaging and pictures/notes inside. There isn't a substantial bump up in quality from the standard definition set either, so if you really want it, know that you're paying for a lossless soundtrack and a fancy-ish mass-produced book. I'd recommend against the upgrade, but if you don't have a copy of the film whatsoever, yeah, throw the cash down.
Does the court feel the accused has been rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary
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