With a legion of titles like Pet Sematary, Firewalker, Sleepwalkers, Maximum Overdrive, and Children of the Corn, it's reasonable not to expect much from Stephen King-inspired motion pictures. Adaptations of the prolific author's work typically vary from mildly entertaining to virtually unwatchable. There are a few notable exceptions, however; two of which (Stand by Me, Misery) were crafted by widely-respected director Rob Reiner. While The Shawshank Redemption is not a Reiner movie per se, it is a production of Castle Rock Pictures (Reiner's film company), and ranks among the best filmed versions of any King stories to date. (This statement has not changed since I first wrote it in 1994.)
Spanning the years from 1947 through 1966, The Shawshank Redemption takes the "innocent man in prison" theme and bends it at a different angle. Instead of focusing on crusades for freedom, the movie ventures down a less-traveled road, concentrating on the personal cost of adapting to prison life and how some convicts, once they conform, lose the ability to survive beyond the barbed wire and iron bars. As one of the characters puts it: "These [prison] walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them, then you start to depend on them."
Filmed on location in a disused Ohio prison, The Shawshank Redemption is set in a place of perpetual dreariness. What little color there is, is drab and lifeless (lots of grays and muted greens and blues), and there are times when the film is a shade away from black-and-white (give credit to cinematographer Roger Deakins, a longtime Cohen brothers collaborator). It's ironic, therefore, that the central messages are of hope, redemption, and salvation.
First time feature director Frank Darabont helms a fleet of impressive performances. Tim Robbins, as Andrew Dufresne, plays the wrongly convicted man with quiet dignity. Andy's ire is internal; he doesn't rant about his situation or the corruptness of the system that has imprisoned him. His unwillingness to surrender hope wins him the admiration of some and the contempt of others, and allows the audience to identify with him that much more strongly.
Ellis Boyd Redding (Morgan Freeman), or "Red" as his friends call him, is the self-proclaimed "Sears and Roebuck" of the Shawshank Prison (for a price, he can get just about anything from the outside). His is the narrative voice and, for once, the disembodied words aid, rather than intrude upon, the story. Serving a life sentence for murder, Red is a mixture of cynicism and sincerity - a man with a good soul who has done a vile deed. His friendship with Andy is one of The Shawshank Redemption's highlights.
William Sadler (as a fellow prisoner), Clancy Brown (as a sadistic guard), and Bob Gunton (as the corrupt warden) all give fine supporting performances. Newcomer Gil Bellows, in a small but crucial role (that was originally intended for Brad Pitt), brings the poise of a veteran to his portrayal of Tommy Williams, Andy's protege.
Ultimately, the standout actor is the venerable James Whitmore, doing his finest work in years. Whitmore's Brooks is a brilliantly realized character, and the scenes with him attempting to cope with life outside of Shawshank represents one of the film's most moving - and effective - sequences.
Unfortunately, following a solid two hours of thought-provoking drama, the movie deflates like a punctured balloon during its overlong denouement. The too-predictable final twenty minutes move a little slowly, and writer/director Darabont exposes a distressing need to wrap up everything into a tidy little package.
"Salvation lies within," advises Warden Norton at one point. It is the presentation of this theme that makes The Shawshank Redemption unique. Prison movies often focus on the violence and hopelessness of a life behind bars. While this film includes those elements, it makes them peripheral. The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and, because of that, watching it is both uplifting and cathartic.