Checking IMDB.com's Top 250 list of their most highly-ranked movies, and to no surprise to me, "The Shawshank Redemption" comes in at number one. I say that now, because I've obviously checked the list more than once and just am aware of it's popularity but it is actually a surprise when you really think about it. You can talk to nearly everybody what they most like to see in movies, and "The Shawskank Redemption" has almost none of them. It’s a prison movie, with almost no female roles, it's 2 ½ hours long, and not fast-paced, there's very little action, if any at all, and is of all things, is about “redemption,” which is often a code word for boring. People like movies about revenge, not redemption. They want to get their comeuppance, not the good guy overcome his own issues. Although, that's not to say that the bad guy doesn't get his comeuppance, but that's not what people remember.
The movie was a box-office failure, only earning $54million at the box office, despite 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, which was only about half the film’s budget. Yet, the movie has become one of the most beloved of all American movies through video, DVD, and TV Airings of the film. It’s now, ironically, been “redeemed” from the brink of being forgotten to become a must-see classic.
And yet, I'm not exactly sure what it is that people romanticized about this little film that could. If I'm being honest, I actually prefer Frank Darabount's follow-up feature, "The Green Mile" a lot more, even with all the problems of that film, basically being about the man godlike Black man and the crazy ending, that, yeah, if I think about it too deeply, I'll probably start losing my head, but it's actually more inspiring for me, personally.
Darabount's an interesting story himself, he actually got his break from Stephen King, whose short story the film is based on. For those, young film school students, if you don't know, Stephen King has a rule where if you send him $1, he'll allow you to adapt a short story of his into a short film, as long as it follows certain guidelines King has, which you can read about, here:
Darabount's the most successful of King's "Dollar Babies" and a frequent adapter of King's work, having directed "...Shawshawnk...", "The Green Mile" and "The Mist.
I think most people who watch the movie remember the movie’s climax, but the key is that the movie is not from the hero’s point of view. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), has been sentenced to two back-to-back life sentences for the murder of his wife and her boyfriend, but the movie is shown from his Red’s narration (Morgan Freeman). A man who’s spent 20 years behind bars at the prison, and who doesn’t think much of Andy upon first look, betting he wouldn’t last a night. If this movie was from Andy’s P.O.V., it wouldn’t be interesting, but because we see Red’s we get the confused, unsure aspects of his perspective, and he and we, just wonder what this guy’s about. Why he strolls so casually in the yard, for instance. He remains quiet, despite everything he goes through, but will suddenly burst a grand gesture, like blaring opera over the loud speaker after locking himself in the guard’s office. He always seems to be hiding something, like a secret he knows that he won’t reveal, but whose actions could be confused for more snob-like behavior. He's a mystery to Red, and that's why he and we are fascinated.
I guess, that's part of why the movie's so intriguing, the film’s secret is that the redemption is not Andy’s, but in fact Red’s. The focus is Andy, but Red is the main character. Through Andy, he finds hope in a place where one shouldn’t be able to find it, in ways that one might not expect. The movie is bridged by Red’s parole hearings that come 10 years apart, and after 40 years, he finally tells the board he doesn’t give a damn if he ever gets out. He is then finally considered rehabilitated and released to the same half-way house another prisoner went to before hanging himself. Through Andy though, he finds redemption, and a way to find hope again. A way to finally break from the walls of Shawshank forever.
Still though, I'm not sure why so many people love and admire this film so much. Darabount's directing and storytelling probably helps. It's subtle and yet confident; it literally sneaks up on you how well the story's been told over time. It sucks you into the world of the prison, and makes you comfortable there. Most prison movies, I can think, they don't do that. They're either, completely exploitative, that's especially true of female prison movies, or they're usually more combative and go for the more obvious and explicit fight-the-establishment narrative. The only other prison movie I can think of that doesn't focus on that is "Birdman of Alcatraz" and even that film divulges into that eventually."The Shawshank Redemption", partially does too, but it's little twist is that, it's a minor subplot at best. It is ultimately a film, not about surviving prison physically, but about surviving prison mentally, and I think that's really the key to understanding it's popularity. It's inspiring, but not in the cliched way that most movies supposedly are. The most famous line from the film, is "Get busy living or get busy dying," although the context of the line, is strange too. It's spoken by Andy while him and Red are talking about what they're gonna do, if they ever get out, on the outside. And it's a perplexing line and scene, at the moment it happens, we're not sure what choice Andy's about to make. I've seen that example used as an inspirational tool several times; I can understand why, but I don't quite know how many people were actually capable of what Andy pulls off. I guess some like to think they could, but it's more likely if they ever break free and start living, more like the way Red does at the end.