For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Whenever we speak of any list of the great movies, that list is usually filled with those films that changed the way we perceive film, or changed what it was possible for a film to do. I cringe at the thought of “Avatar” with its fancy 3D making AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies at the next revision, but I should steel myself now, because is most likely will.
Still, there should be some room on the list for simple excellence, a story that does not seek to innovate or change storytelling, but instead tries to use a timeless story form perfectly. “The Shawshank Redemption” is this type of film.
When I was talking to my wife Jaime about “Shawshank,” I told her that I feel that I like it more than I should. That it is too simple and straightforward to garner such praise. It doesn’t challenge us or make us work too hard. I didn’t want to like something too easily, but “Shawshank” is worth our praise. It is masterful storytelling.
From the start, the story moves like a slow train that picks up steam over time. Never does director Frank Darabont dally with needless digression or whimsical asides, and yet moments occur throughout “Shawshank” that feel inspired or serendipitous.
We begin in the courtroom. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
Now we understand, that Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is intelligent, is going to jail for murdering his wife, and that he may be innocent. We move to his entrance into the jail.
Here “Shawshank” offers Red’s (Morgan Freeman) perspective on Andy at first glance. Red doesn’t think much of Andy, but this is the set up for the moment when Red changes his mind.
I want to take a second to talk about how voice-over is used in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Voice-over gets a bad reputation, because often it is used to fill in the holes of bad visual storytelling. If the visuals don’t play, you can throw in some voice over explication and move on.
The voice-over in “Shawshank” is great for two reasons. First, it never explains something that could be handled visually. We hear about thoughts or feelings, or events outside of the onscreen storyline. Second, the voice-over comes from a supporting character. Red’s voice guides us and offers insight, but even in the voice-over, Andy’s thoughts are something of a mystery. We could argue and discuss why Andy does something, but never does the voice-over give us the answer.
This next scene is a great example of this, in addition to being the inciting incident. Thought I’d throw that in there, since we’re talking traditional narrative.
This is as close as “Shawshank” gets to a “Cool Hand Luke” car-washing scene. But still though it’s sincere, it’s smart too. Andy gets to do something generous for his friends, but he almost gets thrown off the roof in the process. This next scene works in much the same way. (Sound starts at 12 seconds.)
Andy plays music for all of Shawshank prison, but later pays for it with two weeks in solitary confinement. The story continues, and after a moment, when Andy gets outside confirmation of his innocence only to have it snuffed out, he makes this final decision.
Get busy living or get busy dying. It is as close to a moral as “Shawshank” offers, and thank goodness. There are countless times throughout this film that syrup and wide-eyed sweetness could have invaded. Fortunately better heads prevailed, and “The Shawshank Redemption” kept enough of its hard edges to sell the hope and joy.
This is another of the films that made my Top 10 Movies as Good or Better Than Books They’re Based On, and it is one of those rare films that is both great and completely approachable. Makes me wanna it watch again right now.
Up next #71 “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) –Umh, can’t I just watch “Shawshank” a second time and call it good?
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)