The cultured teenager

the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes

Must-see film #8: The Shawshank Redemption

I am going to approach this review in a completely unbiased and unprejudiced way; The Shawshank Redemption is my favourite film and I will not hear a word said against it. Yet, what the hell is great about it? It does not equal the cult levels of Star Wars, nor the disturbing intensity of Apocalypse Now. For serious, fact-based drama, Schindler’s List comes out on top, while for sheer zest and playfulness Pulp Fiction reigns supreme. So what is so great about this film, a film that garnered a (relatively) puny $28 million at the US box office and failed to win in any of its seven Oscar nominated categories? Simply put, Frank Darabont’s film goes back to the basics of cinema in breath-taking fashion. If you give great actors a great script and great direction, then you get a great film. Simple.

In 1947, banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly accused of murdering his wife and sentenced to life imprisonment in Shawshank State Prison. Vulnerable to all of the horrors of prison life, his position initially seems unbearable; beatings, rape and above all hopelessness constitute the daily routine. “They send you here for life” comments Red (Morgan Freeman) “That’s exactly what they take“. But through his friendship with Red and his steady determination, Andy maintains his dignity and courage to rise above the degradation of his surroundings and find, ultimately, redemption. This is a conclusion the film does not easily reach, with cruelty piling on cruelty, and the film’s uplifting conclusion comes as a relief, serving as a testament to the indomitable human spirit, as well as being a real tear jerker. Andy is not superhuman but an ordinary man who found within himself unexpected depths and the spark of hope that could not be dimmed. Darabont executes his story in brilliant fashion. The dialogue is outstanding, raging from the brilliantly profane-“You fat barrel of monkey spunk!” to the simply iconic- “ I guess it boils down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying”. The Gothic setting of the prison augments the bleakness of Andy’s situation and serves as an effective metaphor for people who allow themselves to be trapped in their own minds and do not achieve their full potential. And don’t get me started on the performances. Robbins’ delivers a masterclass in quiet dignity, whilst Freeman’s turn as Red is surely the defining role of his career. And let’s not neglect the outstanding supporting cast. Clancy Brown excels as the brutish Captain Hadley, James Whitmore is heart-breaking as the tragic Brooks (the scene where he carves his name above the stair rail before hanging himself is one of the most poignant I have ever seen watching films), whilst Bob Gunton as the icy, hypocritical Warden Norton is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated villains in movie history. That’s the secret of Shawshank. No parlour tricks. No fancy pop soundtrack. Just a brilliant testimony to the human spirit that many films try to emulate but few can match. The Shawshank Redemption is the best movie ever. F*** off. Will Hunter

Ok, I completely get Will’s point and no sane person could possibly argue against the fact it is an outstanding film, but the best film ever? I say no, not that I would find it easy to pick out another movie as being the best movie ever. Part of my argument against The Shawshank Redemption is just that in labeling one film as being better than all other films, what is the criteria that one has created in order to prove what makes a film the best ever made? Is the best film ever a film where every aspect is done as high a standard as possible, i.e. Shawshank, or is it a film which is far more artistic or, as the purpose of films is this, is far more entertaining and consuming. I personally would argue, that although it is a great film, with a change in director and everything kept the same, or a change in an actor, the film could be just as good, and if not, better. It is hence far easier to argue that maybe it has the best script, but it isn’t quite a perfect film, or has some great performances, but it isn’t alone in containing these factors. If I had to pick an alternative best film ever, my choice would be Pulp Fiction; I feel the narrative itself is just as clever, the script I would argue is better, though clearly of two styles difficult to compare, and, similarly, the acting is second to none. I have to say though, what I feel edges it over Shawshank was the viewing experience. I was impressed and moved by Shawshank but Pulp Fiction was one of the few films where I go, WOAH! How the f*** did someone make that?! Shawshank is perfect execution whereas Pulp Fiction is an unrivaled example of creativity, making it a film that could never be made again, or anything half as good a standard as Tarantino’s masterpiece. The characters have a brilliant realism and humanity in the most unlikely setting, as Tarantino is mocking the genre of Pulp Fiction, a genre in which realism, humanity and good acting, a far harder to achieve, than in a drama of the ilk of Shawshank. However, before I write a Pulp Fiction review, I better get back to the original topic. The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best films ever made, and would easily make my top 10, it’s brilliance lies in the emotional turmoil and emotional sincerity of the characters, particularly Andy Dufresne and Brooks Hatlen, and the superb acting which contributes to this. It is slow and ponderous but this gives a significant realism to the narrative, making the characters, not only believable, but also far easier characters to relate to and sympathise with than the ruffians more conventional in prison dramas. The film has innumerate undertones, many of which are interwoven, both subtle and integral to the tone of the film, such as incredibly clever word choice, for example, where the Warden holds a Bible, stating that “Salvation lies within”. One which many can morally sympathise with, but is utterly integral to Dufresne’s story. A truly brilliant film. Not the greatest, but great nonetheless. Henry Saker-Clark

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3 responses to “Must-see film #8: The Shawshank Redemption

  1. amandalovesmovies June 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    I read an interest critique of this film that said it’s so well loved because it’s a really well made movie that doesn’t challenge you in any real way. Film snobs can love it because the acting, the direction, and the script are all superb, and regular movie goers can love it because it’s a fairly straight forward story. They said it was the perfect middle ground when compared to 2 other Oscar nominees for that year: Forest Gump & Pulp Fiction.

    • theculturedteen June 27, 2012 at 8:08 am

      Interesting. It makes perfect sense, because it is arguable that Forrest Gump is a bit over-sentimental whereas Pulp Fiction is brash and violent. It definitely a film that really ought to have had some success at the Oscars, but it was in a particularly great year for films

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