The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption ★★★★★

This is one of those films I kept putting off to review. Why? Because I know I can never get across just how special I think it is. Some movies are too damn good to quantify, you know what I mean? Plenty of other reviewers have written what amounts to essays, on the brilliance of this motion picture. I'm not smart enough for that, so I won't even try. I'll just do what I tend to do with every review on Letterboxd. Talk about my own personal experience with the film and hope that suffices. I was a manager/projectionist at a three-screen theater in Hilton Head when this first came out in the fall of 1994. Having read the Stephen King story numerous times before that, I was hyped to see it brought to the big screen. King's most literary work! I could hardly wait! Hell, I had the one-sheet teaser framed and hanging in my living room before it's opening weekend! Having watched Hollywood butcher so many of King's works, I was anxious about what they might do to my favorite novella of his. Movies like Stand by Me and Misery gave me hope, of course, but I couldn't help thinking about Firestarter and Christine. How godawful they were. I needen't have worried. Watching Shawshank alone in my theater the night before it opened, I wept at its brilliance. Like so many others, I had been worried about the casting of the two leads. It hadn't occurred to me, all the times I'd read Shawshank, that Red was the most important person in the story. Good as Tim Robbins is as Andy Dufresne, Morgan Freeman's mellifulous voice steals the show. Those soft and soothing tones gets us through the Hell that is Shawshank, and brings us home to the clear, blue waters of Zihuatanejo in the final reel. Freeman's casting was genius, we all know now. The movie lost Tom Hanks as the lead, due to Forrest fucking Gump, I think. And as much as I would have loved to see him in this role, I don't see how Hanks could have possibly made it any better. Red Redding is the heart and soul of this story anyway, the narrator for Christ sake, and I don't think another living actor could have pulled it off like Morgan Freeman. When Red is paroled from prison and narrates the last third, he not only tells the story but shows us what it all means at the same time. It unfolds all so beautifully, right down to that volcanic rock that had no earthly reason for being in a Maine farm field. I sat there in the theater stunned, as the credits unrolled and the lights came up. Other than the casting change, from Red as a white man in King's book, to that of a black man in Darabont's telling, the story is exactly the same. Frank Darabont took a page from Rob Reiner's playbook, and he essentially follows the blueprint already laid out by S.K. in the novella. Everything else fell into place after that. It was a perfect film then, and its only gotten better with time. Music, cinematography, casting, writing, acting, direction, locations. Set design. Everything works to perfection. Watching it, I was completely pulled into the story. No moments where I lost focus and realized it's all just smoke and mirrors, like 99.9% of all movies. A fantasy on film, where we're all in on the Joke. No! This was all transpiring before my very eyes! Andy Dufresne, sentenced to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Red, the guy who could get you anything in prison, within reason of course, helping him to find his way through it all. The pretty ladies on Andy's prison wall, marking the long years gone by. The Sisters, taking from Andy everything but his dignity and hope. Old man Brookes, hanging himself because he didn't know how to fit into the real world anymore. The warden, cruel and obtuse, thinking he holds all the cards. The escape and getaway, one tiny rock at a time. The revenge served up nice and cold, and oh, so satisfying. It was all so real, every bit of it! Never before or since have I ever been so fully transplanted into a movie like The Shawshank Redemption. The next night, Friday, I expected big box office. Surely this was going to be a huge blockbuster! Lines around the building, like we had for Forrest Gump that summer. Of course we were! It was a far, far better movie, for one thing. The ending, both uplifting and inspiring. Exactly what movie audiences wanted in a motion picture, right? Wrong. Shawshank Redemption might be the most popular movie now, but in 1994 it sure wasn't. Two weeks after opening at my theatre, and it was gone. Piss poor box office receipts were all it left behind. I probably saw it more times while it was there than all other ticket sales combined. I recommended it to everyone who came in, but to no avail. "A prison movie? Nah. Sounds depressing. Give me two to that Baby's Day Out. Now that sounds hilarious!" Despite Baby's Day Out outselling Shawshank, 1994 was arguably the greatest year for movies. Pulp Fiction. Shawshank Redemption. Forrest Gump. Lion King. The Professional. And so, so many others. The Oscars overlooked the two best that year, and made Forrest Gump a movie most of us unfairly resent to this day. The heyday of video stores like Blockbuster brought about a following for Shawshank that eventually made it the most popular movie of all time. And restored my faith in the moviegoing audience as a whole. They just needed time to show them the error of their way. But hey, it just goes to show, you can't always tell the best movies at your local theater by the long lines out front. They just might be waiting to go see Baby's Day Out.

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