Despite decades of cinema, spanning multiple countries, genres and styles, somehow The Shawshank Redemption still retains the number one spot of IMDB’s top 250 films of all-time list, ordered and devised by thousands of user reviews. With the likes of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Godfather, 12 Angry Men and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly also in the top 20, one has to wonder how Frank Darabont’s mediocre Shawshank Redemption is anywhere near the top spot.
Speaking to Deadline on the film’s 25th anniversary, acclaimed director Steven Spielberg reported that the film was “a chewing-gum movie—if you step on it, it sticks to your shoe,” in a bizarre statement that also speaks to the film’s truly annoying nature. Starring Tim Robbins as a softly-spoken convict, Andy Dufresne, who forms a close bond with fellow inmate Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman), the film follows the two men dealing with their imprisoned reality whilst trying to live a life of redemption.
Based on the novel Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Steven King, the film is laden with religious subtext, suggesting that Tim Robbins’ lead character is, in reality, a messiah, leading his fellow friends and inmates to enlightenment. However, the inmates of Shawshank seem pretty enlightened already, with the prison itself resembling more an ornate, cushy public library than a harsh, oppressive jail. Neither do the inmates look particularly hard done by, in what is hugely misrepresenting the realities of gruesome imprisonment.
Led by the ‘bad men’ in charge of the institute, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) and Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), Shawkshank lives a somewhat cartoonish existence, a colourful, sanitised version of the realities of life itself. It’s not wrong for doing so, it simply speaks to a Spielberg-inspired cinematic reality that mishandles reality in favour of the sheen of Hollywood sparkle.
As a result, however, Frank Darabont’s film takes on a ‘holier than thou’ attitude wherein each and every character seems to be ripped from the cinematic playbook, empty husks pumped full of one dose of rousing speeches, and a second dose of steely optimism. It all plays into a transparent subtext of individual resilience in the face of adversity, with freedom of mind being almost superior to the actual freedom of the prisoners from incarceration.
Whilst countless films of the prison sub-genre wonderfully explore the nuances of incarcerated life, including Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Steve McQueen’s Hunger, quite why The Shawshank Redemption is so highly revered remains a mystery. Perhaps it is indeed this golden veil that the film casts over the reality that makes it so appealing, condensing its potential impact into something far more cinematic. Just like the audience of the prison’s theatre, who escape their bleak reality by watching the film Gilda, the audience of The Shawshank Redemption are feeding off a fantasy that simply isn’t real.