This week, the stars and director of a little movie called The Shawshank Redemption reunited for an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening in Beverly Hills to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary. Depicting rape, violence, and a river of shit, the 142-minute movie was an instant box-office bomb. Today, it’s regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, universally beloved for its sweet, even sappy message.
In case you weren’t aware of The Shawshank Redemption’s current cultural significance, Vanity Fair’s Margaret Heidenry recently pointed out how in 2012, "the story of the blind man [prisoner Chen Guangcheng] eluding a domestic-security apparatus with an annual budget of $111 billion 'electrified China’s rights activists,' according to the New York Times." Heidenry continued, "The embarrassed country’s Internet police tried to squelch the story by censoring micro-blogs, an information-sharing platform in China similar to the government-banned Twitter. Blocked search terms included 'blind person' 'embassy,' and “Shawshank.'"
Ranked 72nd on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 films of all time, fourth on Empire Magazine's list of the top 500, and perennially sitting at number one on the IMDb top 250, there’s little doubt that The Shawshank Redemption is a great movie. But perhaps its most important accomplishment of these is the latter. It’s strange to think about in a world of CGI-driven blockbusters, but somehow, over time, The Shawshank Redemption became the Internet’s favorite movie.
Much of this has to do with Shawshank being the rare film which strikes a kind of perfect balance. Even looking at the rather stellar year it was nominated for Best Picture, it becomes immediately evident why Shawshank’s legacy has only grown. Consider the other two films from 1994 that emerged as classics, Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. Though Shawshank wasn’t as influential as Fiction and didn’t have the technical mastery of Gump, it easily has the most universal narrative of any of them. Some people find Pulp Fiction to be too cool for school, or to be rather cold and unfeeling, lacking any depth or substance. Others find Forrest Gump to equally sentimental and maudlin, a bag of wizard-like trickery that doesn’t amount to much more than several watered-down cliches.
But everyone loves The Shawshank Redemption. Elements of perseverance, friendship, and (obviously) redemption make Shawshank the kind of story that’s relatable for almost any viewer, whether they’ve ever been within the vicinity of a prison or not. It’s one of the few films that captures the idea of “triumph of the human spirit” without forcing its lessons down their throat. Variety’s Matthew Chernov notes that, “During the course of its 142 minutes, The Shawshank Redemption rarely shies away from depicting the violence, savagery and inhuman degradation that accompanies long-term incarceration. And yet the film’s message is ultimately one of hope.”
Ultimately, The Shawshank Redemption succeeds in large part because isn’t trying to teach us any lessons, or show us anything new. It simply knows what it is, and executes that perfectly.
Shawshank also crosses lines where demographics are concerned. Red is one of the most enduring black characters from ‘90s cinema (unlike John Coffey, from director Frank Darabont's other '90s prison movie, The Green Mile), and the role helped secure Morgan Freeman’s place as a national treasure. The movie might also be one of the few male weepies out there; films designed to elicit strong emotion are usually (and unfairly) reserved as "women’s pictures." Heidenry observes that, “A typical tweet on the subject comes from @chrisk69: 'A man is allowed to cry like a little girl once a year, and as Shawshank Redemption is on the TV tonight, my time has come. #Brookswashere.'”
Shawshank gives you permission to cry, no matter what your gender is. It’s a story of male bonding that astutely deconstructs ideas of typical masculinity. It also brilliantly explores the close bonds that manifest overtime when people are put in difficult, seemingly impossible situations.
Speaking of which, the characters in Shawshank are perhaps the main reason why the film remains so unforgettable. It’s a beautiful-looking movie, masterfully directed by Frank Darabont, working off a script based on a short story by Stephen King, an author who has never failed to capture America’s attention.
But none of that would mean anything were it not for the level of humanity the film bestows upon its ensemble. Think about the Elvis-wannabe Tommy, a representation of the youthful spirit of imitation that runs through every generation. Or the unable-to-rehabilitate Brooks, whose tragic fate prevents Shawshank from being all sunshine and happy endings. These men personify the cruelty and inhumanity of the American prison system, and more than that, they show that no person is just one thing, criminal or otherwise.
Of course, the supporting performances are ultimately dwarfed by those of its leads, whose dynamic gives the movie its true through line. Chernov writes, “the relationship that gradually develops between prisoners Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Freeman) forms the tender heart of the film. Their circumstantial bond, born of harsh confinement and few options, eventually grows beyond mutual respect into a beautifully realized expression of platonic love. Few movie couples are as committed to each other as these two lost souls.”
Andy Dufresne is the classic everyman, played by Tim Robbins with an inscrutable but captivating calm. He’s not a perfect man, but his will not just to survive, but to lead a life worth living, gives the movie its essence. And then there’s Freeman’s turn as Red, for which he rightfully earned a Best Actor nomination.
Red is particularly fascinating because he makes no secret that he was once a bad person. But his final speech, however improbable, finds Freeman delivering nothing short of a soliloquy on the nature of forgiveness and identity. Blessedly, Freeman never overdoes it. Right to the end, he plays Red close to his chest, likable, but not instantaneously so. However, in that moment, where he finally lays his cards out on the table, we see someone discover what it means to have a soul, laid bare and helpless for the entire world to see.
Then there’s the matter of cable television. Have you ever noticed how The Shawshank Redemption seems to be on all the time? This is no accident. Furthermore, chances are good it’s the reason you feel in love with the film in the first place. As Heidenry describes it:
In the early '90s, the cable-television pioneer Ted Turner was hungry for 'quality entertainment product,' as he once put it, to feed his new TNT network. He already owned MGM’s pre-1948 film library. Yet Turner couldn’t rely on dated talkies to bring in new audiences, so in 1993 he bought Castle Rock to expand his repertory. With production and distribution now under one roof, TNT was able to leapfrog the networks—which normally got first dibs on broadcast rights to new movies—and acquired the rights to Shawshank, Turner in essence selling the film to himself… TNT first aired the movie in June 1997 to top basic-cable ratings, and then began showing it over and over . . . and over. 'Yeah, someone said: On any given day, turn on the TV and see The Shawshank Redemption,’ says Freeman.
Finally, in 2014, our massive appreciation for Shawshank surely also has to do with how simple it is. We live in a digital world, where movies have become overrun by CGI creations designed to overwhelm with their sheer magnitude.
But Shawshank proves you don’t need any of that to inspire a sense of awe. Increasingly, it feels like the kind of movie we don’t see anymore, and in that pure simplicity, that unadulterated focus on real humanity, it achieves a rare feat. Shawshank has an old soul, and perhaps the turning tide of CGI-driven filmmaking was why it was not initially successful from a financial perspective upon its release.
If the showiness of American movies has only grown since 1994, it has also made us appreciate Shawshank that much more. If there’s one thing the Internet appreciates, its nostalgia, and Shawshank represents nostalgia for storytelling that’s about characters and dialog over effects and spectacle.
The Shawshank Redemption urges its viewers to “Get busy livin’, or get busy dying.” It’s a short, almost glib declaration. Yet Shawshank sells it wholesale. And if the movie’s very existence demonstrates anything, it’s that living one’s life with urgency is a strange, unpredictable, but entirely worthwhile experience.
Photo via HDMovieTrailers.EU