For more than a decade, readers volunteering their ratings on the movie site IMDb have declared The Shawshank Redemption (1994) their favorite film of all time. (Number two is The Godfather). Unlike the unholy tablets that are the box office charts, which are strongly linked to marketing budgets and show a preference for regurgitated storylines, and unlike the Oscars, which reflect the preferences of an exclusive coterie of largely like-minded insiders at a single moment in time, the IMDb survey provides an excellent, constantly updated, democratic overview of which movies endure in the popular imagination over time. Shawshank has motivated more than two million people to log their ratings. And the taste underlying the IMDb list is surprisingly good. Lots of films that have had little or no marketing budgets lately (such as number five, 12 Angry Men, from 1957) are on it.
Masterfully written and directed by Frank Darabont, Shawshank well deserves its adoration. (Spoilers follow; the film is streaming on Netflix until April 30.) A quarter of a century after its release, it still does not seem cornball or dated. It might be the most emotionally fulfilling cinematic attempt to plumb two of the most crucial elements of our humanity. One is our longing to persevere, or even triumph, against the ravages of adversity — especially unjustified adversity. The other, related, is the conviction, especially among Christians, that we must face up to our moral errors and pay the price for them. We suffer for our sins, but as long as we own them, we can expect a magnificent reward. Andy (Tim Robbins) earns his redemption when he admits that though he didn’t shoot his wife and her lover, he drove her away from him.
Shawshank is neither a blockbuster nor a critics’ picture. Critics get most excited about hidden meanings and ambiguities that lend themselves to contemplation over repeated viewings, and also love films that massage certain sociopolitical anxieties. Shawshank is of no political persuasion; despite one of its two principal characters being black, it doesn’t even bother to inform us that it knows racism is bad. (Nor is the n-word ever used.) It doesn’t have onion layers of significance. It doesn’t need to be “unpacked.” As in Golden Age of Hollywood offerings like Gone with the Wind or Casablanca, what you see is pretty much what you get, though Shawshank’s Wikipedia page quotes at length from a hilarious “deep read” by a critic who positions the film’s hero as Christ and a group scene on a roof as an allusion to the Last Supper. No. Christ famously did not avenge himself against his tormentors and even more famously saved everyone but himself.
Shawshank’s characters openly state what the movie is about. Unlike The Godfather, which may strike one viewer as a satire about the birth of modern corporate capitalism, another about the importance of family unity, and still another as an exciting gangster picture, Shawshank presents its themes with unmistakable clarity. The only element that particularly lends itself to allegorical thinking is Andy’s long crawl through the sewer, which is a kind of birth canal and rectum, leading to his rebirth (or excretion from the prison’s bowels) and capped by one of the most transcendent moments ever filmed, his cleansing in the rain as captured in a majestic rising crane shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. It’s the only really attention-grabbing shot in the entire movie, and that discipline maximizes its potency, attaches ecstasy to deliverance.
There is dualism, or symmetry, all over Shawshank, but this is just another way of saying the film is beautifully balanced, respectful of classic storytelling conventions. Andy stands for the quest for a better existence; his fellow inmate, Red (Morgan Freeman), counsels resigned acceptance of one’s fate. Two men in the film know the Bible by heart. One is the hypocritical, evil warden Norton (Bob Gunton), who blasphemously places himself in God’s position; the other, Andy, has absorbed its lessons. The film is both Christian and secular; despite its redemption theme, Andy’s guiding principle comes not from the Bible but from Bob Dylan: “Get busy living or get busy dying,” he says, distilling his and Red’s differing approaches to life. (Dylan’s line is “he not busy being born is busy dying.”) Depending on your degree of faith, Andy finds his way to heaven after doing penance for his sins or is simply able to retire to the beach after a lifetime of hard work in the financial services industry.
In effect, the film is both an indie and a Hollywood tale — as gritty and downbeat as a Seventies drama and yet building to a happy ending as exhilarating as in any Fifties or Eighties film. Darabont’s misdirection is a marvel. For its first two hours, it’s a slice of life and a character study with no particular narrative direction. Andy bobs up and down on the waves of the warden’s caprice, sometimes living relatively well and sometimes thrown in the hole. Things happen, people come and go from Shawshank and Andy and Red seem certain to die there. But in his magnificent third act Darabont doesn’t just pull off that breathtaking twist, he reveals that this is an entirely different kind of picture from what we thought we were watching. Many of the elements that appeared to have no particular narrative purpose, plus a few we didn’t know about, turn out to be pieces of Andy’s ingeniously engineered prison break. Other prison-break pictures announce themselves at the get-go and generate suspense; this one doesn’t hint at the escape until it’s already complete. Shawshank would still be a superb film even if it had ended after an hour and 45 minutes, in Seventies style, with Andy (Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson) dying behind bars. The third act puts it on a different plane, with wickedness punished and virtue rewarded. It’s as if a funeral for a beloved man turns into a party when the man crawls out of his own grave.
Another dualism: The film is told from both Andy’s point of view and Red’s. Red is the narrator, but almost everything he says is about Andy’s experience or things Andy told him. Very little of what Red says is about himself, even though Red is the one telling us the story. This is another element that would likely be altered if the film were made today: everyone who read the script would ask, “Why is the black guy placing himself in the background of a white guy’s journey?” There would be a quaking fear of think pieces declaring the film endorses white supremacy.
Overshadowed in the year of its release by two other landmarks, Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, each of which is also ranked among the top dozen films of all time in the IMDb survey, Shawshank was a tough sell upon its wide release in October of 1994 and flopped, earning only $16 million on its first theatrical run. Audiences puzzled over that odd name, weren’t sure what genre it was, or maybe just didn’t want to be stuck in lockup for an evening. Though it was nominated for seven Oscars, it didn’t win any. It didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination for best picture. It didn’t win a single major award. And then, after many years, it emerged as the most beloved movie of all time. You might say The Shawshank Redemption was reborn only after crawling endlessly through the mucky tunnel of bowdlerized, commercial-interrupted cable television.