According the esteemed patrons of the Internet Movie Database, “The Shawshank Redemption”, story by Stephen King, directed by Frank Darabont (screenwriter of various Blob, Fly, and Young Indiana Jones sequels or prequels, before this profound “masterpiece”), is the second greatest film of all time. It is better than “Rashomon”, better than “Citizen Kane”, better than “The Third Man”, and even better than “The Seventh Seal”. It is better than “Taxi Driver” and “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate”. It is better than “Ran” and “Kagemusha”. It is better than “Rules of the Game” and “Dr. Strangelove”, and “City Lights” and “The General”.
It has always puzzled me that so many people thought so highly of it. Clearly, it doesn’t belong in the top ten no matter how much you like it. There is simply no way that this film is even nearly in a class with “Citizen Kane”, for example. It’s bizarre to even think so. I really believe that it is possible for reasonable, rational people to eventually reach agreement on that issue.
But is it even any good? A lot of people think so. Clearly, it’s not a terrible movie. In fact, the acting is very good, and the cinematography and editing are all fine. Even the music isn’t bad.
But I find the film annoying. It has this tone of deep understanding and complexity and poetic sensibilities.
I want to understand why I dislike a film that almost everybody else likes. Where did I go wrong? What did I miss? I watched it again and took notes.
Watching it over again did nothing to alter my perception of the film. Except that it is striking to me how well-acted the film is, and generally well-directed.
Herewith, why I think “Shawshank Redemption” is not a good film.
1. The plot is preposterous, right from the moment Dufresne unbelievably admits he sat in front of his wife’s lover’s house with a .38 pistol, drunk, but didn’t murder his wife or her lover. The fact that he might have done that– sit there drunk with a gun on his lap– isn’t the unbelievable part. In fact, that part is strangely believable. He changed his mind. No problem.
The unbelievable part is that he seems to believe the police had no reason to make him a suspect. Really. Why on earth would they think I was up to anything…. But he was clearly thinking of it. He clearly went there with a gun.
It would have been more compelling and believable if, instead of behaving like the righteous victim of an injustice, he behaved more like what he was, unlucky and stupid. And perhaps guilty of wishing his wife and her lover were dead, even if he didn’t actually do it.
And we are supposed to sympathize with this “innocent” man sent to jail unjustly. A man who gets drunk and takes a gun to his wife’s lover’s house, is not completely “innocent”, regardless of whether or not he actually committed the crime. But our arms are twisted: Dufresne is so pure and so fabulously, morally good, we are forced to buy into the movies’ own illusions: it is an outrage that this nice man, who looks like actor Tim Robbins, and who only speaks in a whisper, should be forced to have anal sex with people he doesn’t even know!
Think of all the black men wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t even think about doing. “Shawshank Redemption” is an insult to all those men, and insult to the idea of injustice.
It goes further: Dufresne is not merely morally superior to the other prisoners and the guards– he is luckier. That’s when we know we’re being sold a bill of goods.
2. The district attorney argues in court as if a reasonable person might believe Dufresne’s story– that he didn’t do it, that he preposterously tossed his gun into the river on the way home instead. He feels he really has to convince that jury that this man should be a suspect. In fact, in real life, I think most people would snicker and find Dufresne’s story ridiculously unbelievable without prompting from the prosecutor. He owned a gun of the same type that killed his two-timing wife and he got drunk and he parked in front of the house but he didn’t kill her, and then he happened to toss his gun into the river– all on the same night someone else –with that same type of gun– for incomprehensible reasons– decided to murder his wife? The prosecution is not sure that jury will find this preposterous?
This is stupid writing. Stephen King should be embarrassed at the preposterousness of this plot sequence.
We need a dose of “Chicago” here to introduce some people to reality. This is a classic Hollywood movie conceit, though: you, the viewer, know what a kind, decent, honest man Dufresne is, because we so many close-ups of his innocent face. Part of the emotional impact is due to the fact that you know he’s innocent. But the director chooses not to let you see Dufresne as the jury might see him: a bland, boring nobody who exploded one night when he caught his wife cheating on him.
But that would make Dufresne less of a victim of injustice, and more a victim of bad fortune and stupidity, so we are asked to believe that the jury was unreasonable in finding him guilty regardless. Why? Why? Why? I thought about this a lot, because this passage of the story is so… obtuse. And then I realized why. Because the audience isn’t going to be allowed to share the jury’s feelings about Dufresne’s explanation. That it’s preposterous. Because then we couldn’t feel quite as good about feeling bad.
3. I find this growing trend of actors whispering their lines really, really annoying. This is an early example. Dufresne is in court, not an elevator. He’s in a prison yard, not a closet. He’s in a bank, not phone booth. But he always whispers. It’s the Marlon Brando school of mannerist seriousness, a cheap effect, and a substitute for intonation, rhythm, and inflection. It’s an actor trying to look like a method actor without understanding that what made method acting so compelling was not the whispering and mumbling: it was the internalization of the character’s feelings. It was the shift away from meaning conveyed by dialogue to meaning conveyed by character, by body language, by personality.
I know actors think that whispering their lines seem to give them more emotional weight, but it always strikes me as phony. It’s an imitation of good actors without any understanding of what made them good (it wasn’t the mumbling).
And it must be difficult for the sound man when Dufresne talks to Red: Morgan Freeman generally talks in a normal tone, but Tim Robbins whispers all of his lines. They couldn’t possibly be in the same aural environment. Did the director ask for this, even though, in real life, we’d generally like to slap Robbins on the side of the head and make him speak up like a normal person would in the same circumstance?
4. Red (Morgan Freeman) can get you anything– even a bottle of brandy to celebrate your kid’s high school graduation. That’s the kind of prisoners that live in Shawshank: they only wish they had some brandy to celebrate their kids’ graduations. It speaks volumes about author Stephen King’s actual prison experience (none) that he believes in this old cliché– the resourceful, cranky, colorful scrounger who can get almost anything– which he probably adopted from “Stalag 17”.
5. One of the prisoners looks at the busload of new prisoners (including Dufresne) and remarks on what a sorry-looking bunch of maggots they are. There is nothing in the physical appearance of these men that explain why he would say that– unless you realize that this is just part of the colourful local ambience of the prison. In fact, the new prisoners look quite solid and strong. But it’s exactly the sort of thing the the film-maker thinks the viewer expects some hardened veteran to say at a bus load of new inmates, so it’s there. That is the heart of the problem of the whole movie: it’s a series of scenes the director and writer imagined the audience would believe. The action doesn’t really flow out of circumstance and character: it’s just a bunch of set pieces. Lord knows it doesn’t flow out of any first-hand experience of prisons or prisoners. So, instead of revealing something to the audience, it reveals the audience to the story.
6. Red, who provides a good deal of narration to this story, comes off more like a soldier or mountain climber than someone who has spent 30 years among hardened criminals. His wizened, almost gentle description of how someone always cries the first night makes you think that he has the social sensitivities of a camp counselor.
I sometimes rewrite movies in my head to make them more interesting. So instead of that putrid chestnut, I have Red saying, “I love it when they cry. The sound of their wailing makes me feel like there’s some soul to this place, a great blues harmonica.” Yes, I wrote that. Stephen King: you’re welcome.
But he has the movie’s funniest line:
Andy: “Why do they call you Red?”
Red: “I don’t know. Must be because I’m Irish.”
It turns out that this line had been written on the assumption that a white, Irish actor would be playing the role of Red. When Morgan Freeman took over the role, they decided to keep it, and he delivers it straight up. So one of the very few examples of wit in the movie happened by accident.
7. At Dufresne’s first breakfast, other than the colorful allusions to sodomy, many of the prisoners come off as charmingly colorful and folksy. It’s a like a day at bible camp, and he’s hanging around with the bad kids who don’t sing along.
Now, it could be that Stephen King believes that we are the kind of society that locks up good people. In a post 9/11 world, yes, we certainly are. And in a culture that believes that 20 years in jail isn’t sufficient for possession of marijuana, yes, a lot of good people do get locked up. But part of the horror of that is the fact that we lock them up with the genuinely bad people. Did you happen to notice that there isn’t a single genuinely bad inmate in this movie? The only really bad person, in fact, is the warden. Now, I totally believe that it is possible that the warden might be a more evil bastard than any of the prisoners. I just have trouble with the idea that there’s not a single really bad person in the prison that might help you understand why the warden believes he has to be a prick.
8. Brooks, the librarian, threatens to kill a fellow inmate to avoid being released from prison. This is kind of absurd. No, not “kind of”– it is ridiculously absurd.
First of all, he wouldn’t just get to stay in prison: he would be charged and tried for the murder and, if convicted, could well end up in a different prison, which, given his sedentary disposition, would be as great a catastrophe as being freed. Brooks is not stupid– he’s gotta know this.
Secondly, it’s an insanely obtuse way to keep yourself in prison. All you have to do is hit a guard, or try to escape, or disobey orders, and you could get years added on to your sentence. But most significantly, it’s just plain dumb for a character like Brooks– another one of those lovable decent inmates– to want to murder someone just so he could stay in prison. The someone he tries to murder is Haywood, who is one of the “good” inmates. Might have had a subplot here if he had decided that he might as well murder one of the bad cons (here I go rewriting again) and do some good while he was achieving his goal of staying in prison. It’s also absurd to believe that if Brooks was serious about murdering the guy– and he must be, or there is no dramatic tension in the scene– that he would grab him, hold a knife to his throat, and then wait for Dufresne to come in from the yard to talk him out of it. Why on earth wouldn’t he just do it, if he was going to do it? Again, that would have been far more interesting. It would have been even more interesting to make it a more subtle mystery as why he did it. Let the wonder for a while. Let him reveal his motivations much later in the movie.
Reminds me of those movies in which the wild animal always rises up and growls before attacking. If any lions or bears actually did that in real life, they’d soon discover that most animals don’t wait around to be eaten.
Anyway, the real explanation for this scene is the same as the explanation for most of the other unbelievable moments in this film: it’s a set piece; it’s an idea that flows from the minds of the writer and director envisioning what the audience might like to see, and has no real basis in character or action.
9. When Red defends Brooks to the other cons, he tells them that in here, the prison, he is an important man. Out there, he’s nothing. But Brooks has been in prison for 50 years, and Red has been in prison for 20. You wonder how he can know anything about what will happen to Brooks on the outside. I’m not saying it’s not possible– just that it is presented stupidly. I wish Red had said something like, “you remember Pete? He was in prison 30 years. Got his parole. Two weeks later, he was back. I asked him why. He said it was too hard to live on the outside. Who do you think is waiting for you to help you start over after 50 years? He’s going to end up on the streets, in a soup kitchen, or worse…” Anything, but the simplistic pap we get in Shawshank.
10. Poor Brooks gets barely five minutes to go from prison librarian to parolee to roomer to grocery-bagger to suicide. That’s a lot of story compressed into a couple of dramatic images, but that’s how this movie works. You don’t need to actually deal with a compelling story line if you just take the shortcut right to suicide. We don’t learn nearly enough about why Brooks is that unhappy. He has a job and a place to stay and his freedom. It’s asking the audience to make a pretty big leap to believe that he is so disconsolate about this change in his circumstances that he would hang himself.
As I watched this sequence, I became frustrated. It was a potentially fascinating development. I wanted to see Brooks try to look up old friends or relatives– or children of relatives. He probably would have discovered they didn’t want much to do with an old man fresh out of a prison. I wanted to see how he got from the prison to the boarding house, how he interacted with people, how he found his way. The fact that he was able to get a job, bagging groceries, right away, is remarkable, and might be the most unrealistic part of the story. I’d like to see him discover that the social skills he learned in prison don’t work very well on the outside. Anything, please. Some development, some insight, some inspiration.
11. One of the phoniest scenes of all– all the inmates and guards stop everything to listen to the opera Dufresne puts out through the prison loud speakers. Every musical artist watching this film would think he had died and gone to heaven if such an event could have happened even at a concert of people who actually paid to come listen.
Now, this scene is very well directed. The over-head shots of the prison yard, the close-ups of the attentive faces, Dufresne with his feet up on a chair, the anxious warden trying to get back into the office. Beautiful. But it’s a fantasy, a dream. It’s phony.
I’m not saying the scene couldn’t have worked. It could have, if handled with even a modicum of respect for reality. The warden might have quickly realized that there is a fuse box somewhere, but maybe he had trouble identifying which fuse it is. More probably, the warden might have realized that the music is no real threat, especially if he played along with it. A more interesting possibility– if he made the inmates believe he was responsible for it and they turned their backs on it.
Instead, the warden starts yelling at Dufresne and pounding the door. Isn’t that exactly what you expected to see? That’s the problem with Shawshank. It gives you exactly what you expect, without any thought as to what it might or might not reveal about character. It is necessary, given the phoniness of the rest of the movie, for the warden to get upset, and angry, that the prisoners have somehow managed to raise their consciousness and improve their minds. That’s the kind of cliché “Shawshank” deals in. As the warden yells, “turn it off”, Dufresne turns it up. Not because that would be a believable thing for him to do (it isn’t- why wouldn’t he have turned it up at the start? He’s not hiding anything) but because it accentuates Dufresne’s defiant willfulness, his determination to be free, even in prison. It’s like one of these Greek masks that tell you if the character is happy or sad.
After serving two weeks in the hold, Andy returns to the lunch room. There is a spot waiting for him between Red and Haywood which is kind of funny because Haywood is surprised to see him. They always sit with one space between them, in case Andy is going to drop by? This kind of thoughtlessness permeates Shawshank.
In the shots of the yard as the prisoners listen to the music, notice how this was the only prison in the country in which blacks and whites seamlessly blended into social groups in the yard.
The inmates, especially Dufresne and Red, remain physically pretty even after years of brutal incarceration. Well, maybe it wasn’t as brutal as we thought.
12. Red listens to Andy discuss the warden’s investments and money-laundering schemes and warns him that all that money “leaves a paper trail”. It’s hard to believe that Red, in prison for 30 years and uneducated, would feel confident or wise making such a statement to an ex-banker. Better line: “My mistake was robbing people with a gun. I should have learned accounting instead.”
Given his background, isn’t it more likely that Red would believe that Andy is so smart, he will never be caught? But then, Red wouldn’t come off as quite so wise, would he?
13. You would think that people who’ve been in prison long enough would learn to stop saying, “he don’t look like a murderer.”
14. It’s tough for a writer. You want a character to be smart, so the reader admires him. But sometimes, you gotta make him damn stupid to advance the plot. So when a new inmate named Tommy hears about Dufresne’s crime and relates how a former room-mate at another prison named Blatch had claimed responsibility for it, Dufresne rushes to the warden to ask for his help in getting a new trial. He doesn’t contact his own lawyer– he goes to the warden. Dufresne–who is supposed to be pretty smart–apparently doesn’t know that the warden doesn’t have anything to do with criminal sentencing or verdicts. Dufresne doesn’t know that only a judge could release him? He doesn’t know how to contact his lawyer and arrange a visit? What on earth would make him think the Warden was the guy to go to with that information?
Then he has to be credulous enough to say he believes that Tommy’s testimony by itself would be enough to get him a new trial. What a quaint little world we are in here.
Then– it gets worse — he clumsily threatens to expose the Warden’s questionable financial activities. This is a man who apparently doesn’t know who has the keys, the guns, and the batons in this prison.
Remarkably, Red also takes the story at face value. You couldn’t find a more trusting group of people at a girl-scout convention. Here’s where we could have used some of Red’s alleged wisdom here: he should have told Dufresne he would have to do better than that to get a retrial. He should have told him the Warden won’t believe him or care.
Tommy passes his high school equivalency. At this point of the film, Dufresne is starting to accumulate messianic powers of healing and suffering.
The warden’s conversation with Tommy outside the prison wall is more than a little bizarre.
Then the warden threatens Dufresne with being taken out of his one-room “Hilton” and put into the regular prison population, the “sodomites”. But instead of doing that, he puts him into solitary for an additional month, then returns him to the same cell. Very convenient, since Andy is digging a tunnel in his cell.
15. Dufresne makes Red promise that, if he ever gets out, he will go to a hay field in Buxton with a long stone wall with an oak tree at the end of it. Sound specific enough for you? Especially when you haven’t been anywhere near that field in 20 years? And in this field, Red is supposed to look for a black volcanic rock. Piece of cake. In all this time, no farmer, or heavy rain, or kids, or animals, will have moved that rock or killed the oak tree.
Right after this conversation, the mother hen society of Shawshank holds a meeting because they are all concerned about Andy, because, Red says, he’s been talking funny. This really is the most amazing prison in the world It’s the kind of prison filled with kind, caring individuals, that you want to live in.
16. Why on earth waste your time trying to convince the viewer that Andy is thinking of hanging himself? It’s a cheap little trick that does nothing to advance anything in the movie. It’s not believable for a second.
17. The movie treats Andy’s escape after 20 years in Shawshank as a moral, physical, and spiritual victory. In real life, I would think 20 years in prison would still suck.
18. Andy uses a rock to crack into the sewer pipe, timing his blows to coincide with the thunder outside. But there is a crack of thunder when the lightening flashes, which isn’t right, of course, and then another crack when he whacks the pipe. What? So there are two thunder bolts– one with the flash, and one a few seconds later, because sound travels more slowly than light.
Andy crawled through 500 yards of sewage pipe to get out of the prison. Sewages produces gases that would probably have readily killed him. The sewage pipe ends up in a shallow creek. Shawshank prison dumped its raw, untreated sewage into an open creek? Okay– that’s probably quite possible. But the tunnel Andy carved through the wall of his cell looks like it’s about 12 feet deep. That is a strange wall. I imagine someone at this prison eventually got a brain and started to execute annual cell-checks, since it would take more than a few years to dig through a wall that thick without a jack-hammer.
19. When Andy comes out, it’s fairly obvious that Tim Robbins is splashing as much as possible for dramatic effect. It’s looks dramatic. And phony. Even phonier when he rips off his shirt and the light is so perfect and it looks so majestic and utterly preposterous and clichéish. He stretches out his arms– I’m free. This is a director that does not trust his audience for one split second. I just can’t help but think that a real person in that situation, free at last after twenty years, would look around very carefully to make sure nobody saw him.
20. It looks like the warden only realizes that he is being investigated for corruption when it appears in a headline of the local newspaper. You can even hear the sirens sound as he throws the paper down on his desk, so I guess the local District Attorney gets all his evidence from the newspapers as well, and this particular newspaper publishes potentially libelous stories without further investigation or giving the subject of the allegations the opportunity to comment.
21. The warden loads his pistol up with several bullets and then points it at the door as the police are trying to get in to arrest him. So, as a viewer, am I supposed to believe that warden had decided to shoot it out with the police? That’s plainly absurd, so the next event, the warden shooting himself, is more logical. But then, why did he put several bullets in? I guess you could argue that he maybe had some thoughts about fighting and then realized it was useless. Hmmm. Or was the director looking for another moment of cheap dramatic tension.
22. Red, after Dufresne’s escape, reminisces with his prison-mates about the stuff “Andy pulled”. They sound like a bunch of former college room-mates discussing some pranks.
23. It would have been endearing of the film-makers to acknowledge the role of exaggeration in these stories they now tell about Andy. But then, these are boy scouts. They never lie.
24. “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” is unforgivable. Especially when he goes on to point out that the prison is now “..that much more drab and ugly when they’re gone.” The prison wasn’t drab and ugly when Andy was there? It was a fun place, filled with hi-jinks and good humor?
25. Red slams the parole board at his last hearing. He says “rehabilitation” is just a politician’s word, and he doesn’t know what it really means. He tells them to stop wasting his time. In the context of this movie, Red is absolutely right. Given that most of the inmates are portrayed as boy scouts, it’s hard to imagine any of them actually needing any rehabilitation. So Red can sit there and call it “bullshit” and the audience feels a deep surge of hostility for these bad people in suits who are keeping good people like distinguished actor Morgan Freeman in prison and forget about the fact that if he hadn’t asked for the meeting and applied for parole himself it would never have happened.
I think a lot about the fact that the same people who voted for politicians who passed laws that put people into real prisons for 20 or 30 years for relatively minor crimes, could watch this movie and feel really, really good about themselves.