The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry,” muses Brooks (James Whitmore), a convict released into ’50s society after a prison term that began almost with the century, in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994, Columbia TriStar, R, priced for rental). The now-elderly ex-con just can’t get used to the fast pace of modern life; particularly disconcerting is the way all those cars whiz along the roads. Why, back when he was put in stir, the automobile was a new invention. While Brooks fares poorly on the outside, one can readily imagine how head-spinning he would find the accelerated culture of ’90s America, where, among other things, a movie like Shawshank can make the journey from Critically Acclaimed Box Office Dud to Lost Classic Worthy of Rediscovery in less than a year.
Shawshank received excellent reviews, and got great, if limited, word of mouth during its theatrical run, which began last fall. It’s back in wide release as of this writing, thanks to its seven Academy Award nominations. And the Academy’s recognition prompted a posse of TV and print pundits to speak of it in tones film scholars heretofore reserved for, oh, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed — which Shawshank most emphatically is not. What it is is an extremely satisfying entertainment. But in the incredibly impoverished year of 1994, such distinctions meant little — for a movie to be merely watchable seemed achievement enough.
At two hours and 20 minutes, Shawshank is not just a prison story; it’s a saga, spanning more than 20 years and recounting the at-first unlikely friendship between doe-like banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), serving two life sentences for a double murder he didn’t commit, and hard but wise prison procurer Red (Morgan Freeman). While Dufresne seems a sure bet to become one of Shawshank Prison’s many casualties, having attracted the unwanted attentions of rapists, he not only endures but thrives: He uses his skill with numbers to gain favor with the brutal guards (by preparing their taxes), his tenacity to build a superb prison library, and his stone-carving jones to fashion a gorgeous chess set. And that’s just for starters. Indeed, Shawshank’s portrayal of Andy’s achievements began to make me consider prison a good chance to focus on some projects I’ve let gather dust recently.
Then, of course, various objects hit the fan; Andy suddenly finds himself in a rather less enviable position, and Red, with whom Andy has all along been conducting a (sometimes oblique) colloquy on hope, begins to worry about his friend. At this point Shawshank breaks out of its gritty milieu and takes on the dimensions of a tall tale. The movie is based on a short novel by Stephen King, and while you’d think the master of horror would have a grand dark time in prison, Shawshank is in fact one of his sunnier works. The movie is stuffed with eccentric characters and events that, while they carry the whiff of other King works, are great fun to see enacted — especially given the elan screenwriter-director Frank Darabont infuses in every frame. (Unfortunately, some of that flair is lost in this pan-and-scan video version.)
And then there are Robbins and Freeman. As usual, Freeman is remarkable, his face displaying a lifetime of pain until it slowly breaks into a smile you think could light up the world. And Robbins gives, to my mind, his best performance yet, his quiet dignity ever so subtly masking a cleverness and determination that’s far greater than his admiring fellow cons can imagine.
Still, as lovely as much of The Shawshank Redemption is, to call it a masterpiece is pushing things. In a time when ”quite good” is often a lot more than we expect, perhaps the term ”provisional masterpiece” is the correct one. A-