What does it take to be the greatest film of all time? A 9.2 out of 10 rating from half a million voters, obviously. IMDB is a more populist arbiter than the Academy or the secret cult of robe-wearing Illuminati who make up AFI, and The Shawshank Redemption has all the right elements of a populist film. Emotion. Friendship. Triumph. Morgan Freeman. But does that make it the best movie ever, or merely the least-offensive movie ever? With Edward Norton up for parole in Stone this week, we thought it was time for the PopWatch Parole Board to rewatch Shawshank (for the 35th time in our lives) to see if it really holds up. Get busy readin’, or get busy, um, not readin’.
DARREN FRANICH: When we started watching Shawshank via Netflix instant viewing, I was initially really perturbed by the fact that it was old-school VHS Pan-and-Scan, not letterboxed. But visually, it really didn’t seem to matter, which makes me wonder if Shawshank is just better in so many ways in TNT form. Even the way the film moves seems to demand commercial breaks. Long scenes that fade to black, mini-episodes with their own story arc — like “The Trial,” “The New Fish,” “The Attack of the Bull-Queers,” “The Library,” “The Greaser Who Doesn’t Read Good,” and “The Escape.”
KEITH STASKIEWICZ: It’s a movie made for cable TV and DVD chapter titles. I don’t know if I’ve ever watched it not on cable. This may have been the first time. And yet, according to IMDB, Shawshank is the greatest film of all time, beating out The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and every single other film ever made.
DF: What, even The Dark Knight? Even 12 Angry Men?
KS: Even Ghost Dad. Honestly, it’s not that surprising to me. While any of those others can be divisive, or just aren’t popular enough to get the votes needed to work the weighted system they have, Shawshank has the benefit of being seen by every human being with cable TV and being hated by none of them. Honestly, I think it’s the lack of dislike, more than an abundance of like, that puts it up there. It’s a straightforward, easy, well-made movie. Plus, feel-good. Everybody loves to feel good.
DF: I would quibble a little bit with calling it “feel-good.” The movie is just draped in sadness and a kind of stultifying anger and sense of repression. Especially when you compare it to Frank Darabont’s later movies — like The Majestic, which is just happy people bumbling around small-town America for two hours, before Darth McCarthy pops in — this movie is surprisingly no-BS about a lot of awful things. The whole prison-rape imbroglio is kept at arms’ length, but you’re very aware that it’s happening.
KS: But the Sisters are practically the only violent, not-humanistic prisoners in the entire maximum security prison. All the other convicted murderers are so nice. Whenever someone made fun of William Sadler’s character, he’d just roll his eyes and say, “Come on, you guys!” instead of shivving them in the throat with a filed toothbrush. I have a feeling that even in the 1940s-60s, if you got a bunch of killers together in a prison under harsh conditions, there’s going to be a bit more than off-screen rape and poster smuggling.
DF: That’s totally fair, but I also think that no matter how much the movie skimps on the actual reality of prison life in the ’40s, it captures a relentless feeling of oppression, which makes the fact that it’s incredibly easy and fun to watch all the more impressive. I think a lot of what I’m saying comes down to Morgan Freeman’s narration.
KS: That man could read me my Miranda rights and I’d feel it was an honor.
DF: When I started watching Shawshank and Freeman started narrating, I sort of winced, because by now, “Morgan Freeman’s Narrating Voice” is such a go-to parody format. But about ten minutes in to Shawshank, you’re hooked, and you realize that, unlike all his other narration jobs, this narration is actually kind of dark and funny.
KS: Is it just me, or does half of the movie’s narration start with the phrase, “Sometimes it gets so that a man….” Let me say that I actually do think it’s a good movie. It’s well-made, well-acted, and has a story that makes me want to watch all two-and-a-half hours of it. But my question is, how do we get from there to “greatest movie of all time”? My theory is that it’s all due to TNT.
DF: It’s “the greatest movie of all time,” but only because of television. So actually, it’s just the greatest TV movie ever made.
KS: Here’s my dime-store analysis: I feel like it’s a natural psychological reaction to like a movie more the second time you watch it. Films are like music in that way: The more you listen to it, the more you know what’s coming, the more you can appreciate its rhythms and the small things, and the more you feel like you can sing along. Half the people our age can mouth along with nearly the entirety of this movie’s dialogue. The more we watch it, the more we love it, until, bam! it’s not so crazy to call it the best movie ever.
DF: That’s so interesting! And wrong! I actually feel the exact opposite about movies. With very rare exceptions, I tend to like movies the best the first time I watch them, when the experience of it is so immediate and visceral. Later viewings tend to crystallize flaws. To me, that’s what makes Shawshank special: The fact that it really doesn’t get old. The one major change from the book — besides lopping “Rita Hayworth” off the title — is that ending. Darabont had planned on ending the movie with the bus driving away. Leaving it open-ended and ambiguous, although not really that ambiguous.
KS: You can tell that. Freeman says, “I hope I make it across the border.” Five seconds later: “Oh, I guess you did.” I think it’s interesting to compare this ending to the ending of Darabont’s other other Stephen King movie, The Mist. Have you seen it?
KS: SPOILER ALERT!!
DF: You don’t have to yell, I’m sitting right here.
KS: Sorry. *Spoiler Alert*: It’s one of the most depressing twists ever. Thomas Jane kills his son, thinking he’s saving him, and then finds out that it was unnecessary. It’s hard to believe the same person made these two movies, since The Mist is essentially the opposite in tone. If anything, it’s a failure-of-the-human-spirit movie. It kind of gives me hope for The Walking Dead.
DF: Shawshank doesn’t play on TNT anymore, right?
KS: Not really. I feel like someone pointed out to TNT the fact that they kept showing it so much, and it was like someone pointing out that you keep telling the same joke, or keep saying “You know what I mean.” Because suddenly, it was as if they were actively trying to keep it off the air. I don’t think I’ve seen it on television for a long time.
DF: And I don’t think this is the kind of movie you purposefully seek out to watch on Netflix or in a video store. Which leads me to wonder if, IMDB ranking aside, Shawshank‘s long tail is running out.
KS: I feel like it’s perceived quality is on a bell curve. Not all that great reviews when it first came out. Then suddenly it’s the Best. Movie. Evah! And now, maybe, it’s on its way down to a more understandable appraisal level.
DF: Huzzah, tempered expectations!
Next Week: Hilary Swank stars in Conviction about a man wrongly accused of murder. It’s quietly powerful. So we’ll be watching the very loudly powerful wrongful accusation film My Cousin Vinny, and discussing it entirely in Joe Pesci impressions.