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1 Year, 100 Movies #72 The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

by Trey Hock on September 23, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

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.

In this scene the rock hammer is introduced, and in a subtle, simple way. Andy laughs off the idea of escaping with it. We as smart viewers should know better.

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?

1 Year, 100 Movies #73 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #74 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1 Year, 100 Movies #75 In the Heat of the Night (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #76 Forrest Gump (1994)

1 Year, 100 Movies #77 All the President’s Men (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

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)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Laurie September 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I love this movie and reading this makes me want to watch it again! I always stop and watch this movie, if only for a few minutes, whenever I see it while flipping channels. I think no matter how many times I see it, the ending will always choke me up a bit.


2 Kenny September 23, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Spot on.


3 Colin September 24, 2010 at 6:51 am

I’ve always felt like this movie is the cinematic version of Bob Marley’s “Legend,” in the sense that it’s a movie that’s dearly beloved by people who don’t really like movies. It’s something acceptable to name as your favorite movie (not too pretentious but neither “Transformers 2”), and for that reason, I don’t trust it (even if it actually is pretty decent).


4 Rosie September 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

You know, I think The Shawshank Redemption did change film making in a way. It created a whole new genre of film or storytelling that focused on prison life and, well, redemption. Of course, off the top of my head I can only list The Green Mile as another movie in that genre, but still.
My whole problem with voice over is that it’s not used consistently. Films tend to be bookmarked with a character’s inner thoughts and it just bugs the crap out of me when the end credits roll and a disembodied voice is summing up the movie for me, in case I didn’t get it.


5 Trey Hock September 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Colin, I understand. When someone claims Shawshank as a favorite movie, it is like saying the Beatles are your favorite band. It’s an easy choice and hard to argue with, but I do think the film is solid. It is just that lack of innovation that sticks in the obsessive film lover’s craw.

Rosie, since Darabont wrote and directed “The Green Mile” as well, and it was adapted from another Stephen King short story, I don’t know that I would call it a genre. Maybe just Darabont’s forté.

Laurie & Kenny, glad you enjoyed the review.


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