Judge Joel Pearce thinks you had better get busy living, or get busy dying.
[T]hese walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. -Red
I don't like making claims that are too strong in my reviews. After all, anything I say here will be read by hundreds of people, and will be here for years to come. There comes a point, though, when critics need to throw caution to the wind. The Shawshank Redemption is the best Stephen King film adaptation. It's also the best prison movie ever made. In 40 years from now, when only a few films are remembered from the 1990s, this film will be one of them. The Shawshank Redemption never hits a wrong note and may be about as close to perfection as any film has ever been. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for its first DVD release. It had a solid transfer, but lacked the extra features that a film of this importance deserves. Warner has now released this new edition, which fans of the film can feel better about buying.
Facts of the Case
"I wouldn't say friends. I'm a convicted murderer who offers sound financial planning. It's a wonderful pet to have." -Andy
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins, Mystic River, The Player), a generally quiet banker from Maine, is convicted for murdering his wife and her lover in 1947, after they end up dead with all evidence pointing to him. He is sent to Shawshank prison for life. There, he finds himself in a new and different world, surrounded by convicts who have become used to the horrors of prison life. Eventually, these men even come to depend on the structure, discipline and routine that prison life has to offer. Andy is different, though; never allowing the prison life to take away his hopes for freedom. However, there is only so much that a person can take—even a man as remarkable as this.
"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." -Warden Norton
At times, fiction can have more truth than a story recounting actual events could. The Shawshank Redemption is one of these stories, perfectly capturing what it means to be imprisoned, whether by cement and steel bars or by the ever-present weight of life. The process that the prisoners have to go through upon their arrival at Shawshank prison is so carefully calculated and effective that it perfectly explains the mentality of the North American prison system. As the new inmates arrive, they are centered out, brought in as the rest of the population jeers at them. They are then brought in front of the warden, who asserts the importance of discipline but does not go over very many rules. After all, it's not the rules of the prison that are important—what's important is only that the prisoners have their spirits broken, obey orders, and stay in line. After the difficult initial period, Shawshank is actually a generally peaceful place for the men to live. There are violent and unpleasant exceptions, of course; but the portrayal of prison here is quite different than what we see in most films. The men don't just band together for mutual protection, but become closely knit groups of friends, watching each other's backs and sharing life together. They accept the discomfort, avoid the guards, don't cause trouble with each other, and gradually forget what it felt like to be outside of the prison walls.
The reason Andy stands out so much is because he is unwilling to accept that fate for himself. He always remembers what it means to be free, and creates moments of freedom for himself and the other men around him. He fights to get a decent library where the men can learn and gain their high school equivalency degrees. He helps his friends get special privileges when they work outdoors. For a while in the film, it seems as though things aren't so bad. We start to forget how terrible things were in the beginning, and we get caught up in the little things that Andy does for his fellow inmates. That doesn't last forever, though, and the time when things come crashing down for him is the moment in the film when we, too, come crashing back to reality.
Every moment of The Shawshank Redemption delivers exactly what it should. The script is perfect, brilliantly turning the whole film into a puzzle so tightly constructed that you can't see the seams, even when the last piece is slid into place. Each scene is important and each line of dialogue resonates within the context of the film. The tone of the film shifts constantly between touching human moments, disturbing scenes of violence, and beautifully written humor. The results of this blend will touch even the most jaded of viewers.
This incredible script is enhanced by remarkable production values, turning a brilliant story into a remarkable motion picture. The cinematography uses every tool at director Frank Darabont's disposal in order to capture the desired tones. The light creeps into Shawshank prison, capturing exactly the right objects at the exact right times. The connections to the historical periods are precise and subtle. The film covers approximately 20 years, and the world around the characters changes as time passes. These changes are detailed enough that we always know what era we are in, without ever feeling that it's being waved in front of our faces. The characters age as well, but this aging is slow and difficult to notice, rather than the complete transformations that happen in some films. The soundtrack is stellar, so much so that many viewers will not even notice it unless they listen for it.
All of this would be for nothing, though, if it weren't for the exceptional performances by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Robbins gives a sensitive, underplayed performance that is full of nuance and mystery. We don't know any more about Andy Dufresne than the other inmates do when he arrives at Shawshank, and the process of learning more about him is fun and fascinating. The way he moves changes gradually throughout the film, as he changes from being quiet and afraid at the beginning to the confidence and quiet power he holds at the end. There is a moment partway through the film, when he prevents a fellow inmate from being killed, where he suddenly has become in charge of the group. This is a major shift for the character, but Robbins' performance is so good that it doesn't seem at all improbable.
If Andy Dufresne is the character that can never be a true part of Shawshank, then Red is the character that represents the prison population. It is through his voice that we learn Andy's story—first from a distance, then as a close friend. This is the best of Morgan Freeman's consistently excellent work. The lines that he has as the narrator echo in my mind for days after I have watched the film. He always manages to emphasize just the right moments, highlighting the words that will become surprises later in the film without making it obvious. His on-screen performance, as the prisoner who has become a permanent fixture at Shawshank but is smart enough to realize what that means, is just as good. It was Morgan Freeman who was nominated for best actor that year, and I think he should have won.
The supporting cast is impressive as well, creating a group of completely memorable characters that never overshadow the main story. While it would have been easy to just make a group of tough-looking inmates that remained nameless in the background, each speaking character in the film stands out as a person with a distinct personality. The fate of Brooks (James Whitmore) is one of the most heartbreaking moments in film history. Heywood (William Sadler, The Green Mile) provides the perfect counterpoint to the interactions between Andy and Red. Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown, as Warden Norton and Hadley, also deserve mention as the completely evil yet still completely human rulers of the prison. There are other great performances, too, more than I have time to mention here.
Enough gushing about the movie, though. Most people reading this review will already feel the way I do, and are probably more curious about this new two-disc DVD edition.
Although the transfer on the original disc still holds up reasonably well, this new transfer is gorgeous. There are virtually no flaws whatsoever, either from the source or from the digital transfer. There's no visible edge enhancement, the colors are bang-on, and the black level creates perfect shadows. There are a number of very dark sequences, and it's never difficult to see what's going on. The whole transfer seems more vivid than the last one, but still accurately captures the grey, dull palate of the film. The audio transfer is just as good. The dialogue is great, especially Morgan Freeman's narration, which seems to fill the entire room. The music is audible, but subtle background sounds are used to great effect.
There are also quite a few extra features this time around. The first is Frank Darabont's commentary track. He had decided last time around that the film could speak for itself, and so blocked any commentaries from being included. I'm glad that he has changed his mind this time, because his track is both entertaining and informative, full of the kinds of details that we want to know about production without ever letting himself get too carried away. He is quick to give credit to others when it's due, although it always remains clear that this film belongs to him.
The second disc holds hours of additional material. The first of these is Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption. It runs for about half an hour, and is one of those self-congratulatory series of interviews with the cast and crew. Normally I would complain more than I will here, but this is a good enough film that I think they have a right to talk about it in this way. It feels more sincere here than on most featurettes, and they do have plenty of valuable things to say. The second is Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature. It is a British feature celebrating The Shawshank Redemption as a miracle of modern film. After all, it did not do that well at the box office, and only later found the respect it has come to have through word of mouth once it hit home video. I am not as rabid as some of the fans that speak here, but I do understand why they regard it in the way they do. It talks a lot about the adaptation process, and the details that make The Shawshank Redemption such a remarkable film. It's a much more interesting documentary than the first one, and is well worth checking out.
Next up is a recording of the Charlie Rose show, a tenth anniversary broadcast. I have never been a fan of the Charlie Rose show segments on DVDs, and this isn't really an exception. Charlie Rose doesn't seem to have a clue what the hell he's talking about, and stumbles through the interviews as though he had done no research ahead of time. He tries to talk Frank Darabont, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins through the production process, but all of that was handled more smoothly in the preceding documentaries. The three of them often seem mildly annoyed, but they all act politely. Despite Rose's involvement, they manage to say a number of interesting things through the lengthy 40 minutes, making it worth sitting through once.
The Sharktank Redemption is a short parody film starring Morgan Freeman's son, Alfonso Freeman. It transplants the film's story into a Hollywood agency, and uses the memorable lines in the film to make a strong statement about the Hollywood studio system. There are a few moments that don't work perfectly, but it's definitely worth a watch for fans of the film.
The disc also has a series of production photos, and the storyboards from several sequences in the film. There is also an ad for a series of collectibles that are tied into the film.
I have absolutely nothing bad to say about The Shawshank Redemption or this disc. If you have never seen this film, go out and buy this disc immediately. If you want to rent it first, go ahead; but I already know you will want it in your collection. If you are a fan of the film, this disc offers enough to make it worth the upgrade, whether from the worn VHS copy or the first DVD release. It's not very often that a film like this comes around, and it has now finally received the treatment it deserves on DVD.
I hereby release The Shawshank Redemption and grant it immunity from all future charges. Warner is thanked for the quality of this disc, and has been forgiven for the lack of extras on the previous release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director/Writer Frank Darabont
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