Tuesday, June 30, 2009

“I understand you’re a man who knows how to get things.”

Every once in a while, I like to expose myself to the Oscar-level drama films. Stuff that is generally accepted as having a message, and is about something important. It helps me justify that impulse monocle purchase of a few years ago, because I’m classy. Don’t know why I started that off as a lead in to saying that I saw 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption for the first time recently. Going in, I knew two things: it was based on a Stephen King story, and it was about prison.

Well, its definitely about prison. Shawshank Reformatory, to be exact. A young New England banker is sentenced to life in Shawshank for the murder of his wife. He spends the next twenty years adjusting to life on the inside, interacting with the other inmates and changing peoples’ lives. Oh yeah, and it’s a period film that takes place over several decades (it is 142 minutes long)

CharactersAndy Dufresne: Our hero, played by Tim Robbins. A whiz with money, he endures his prison term with stoicism, confident in his innocence. He starts up little hobbies, like carving a chess set, or setting up a library for the inmates, or helping the guards with their income tax forms, or trying to avoid prison sodomy. Andy’s whole arc is about how a guy like him can not only survive in prison, but also take advantage of things so as to more or less thrive. He’s a persistent, doggedly patient man, and seems determined to bring a little culture into the big house. Of course, there’s more to his serene patience than he lets on, and by the end of the film, you realize just how much of a magnificent bastard of an intellectual badass he is.

“Red” Redding: Morgan Freeman is the narrator, a long-time resident of Shawshank who’s got quite a successful smuggling racket going on, providing goods at negotiable rates. He’s sly and knows how life is on the inside, and eventually becomes Andy’s best friend. He actually gets a very real character arc as Andy keeps prodding him to feel hope.

Warden Norton: The (generally) soft spoken warden of Shawshank who says “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.” He’s a quietly threatening presence, but favorable to those on his good side. He and Andy get an interesting dynamic going when he discovers Dufresne is quite the number cruncher, but near the end of the movie, the warden gets into a weird twist where he suddenly becomes truly eeeeeeviiiiilll for no clear reason. He was a hardass before, but he becomes a real asshole, and I never picked up on “why” exactly.

Captain Hadley: Warden Norton’s dragon (look it up on tvtropes), he’s the muscle of the guards, a balled up fist in a metal gauntlet holding a granite fist broken off of a very large statue. He’s a mean bastard who’s not above beating the shit out of the inmates when they get out of line, but he can be reasoned with, as Andy finds out. This leads to a hilariously badass moment when he confronts an inmate named Boggs in his cell. Interestingly enough, he’s played by Clancy Brown, a veteran voice actor and the man behind the Superman: The Animated Series’ Lex Luthor.

Tommy: A young delinquent with a small role, he has an arc where he gets taken in under Andy’s wing so he can study for the GED exam. He’s a likable guy but not in the movie for long.

Brooks: An “institutionalized” man and the guy who ran the prison library when Andy got there. His major arc was the sad tale of his life after being released from prison and unable to adjust to life on the outside.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Filmed on location at the Mansfield Reformatory and other places in Ohio, director Frank Darabont did an excellent job capturing not only the grim mood of prison, but also the period feel. Hell, watching it, I thought the movie was made back in the 80s and not the early 90s. In terms of fantastic shots, the one iconic shot of Andy in the rain that gets used for every clip about the movie stands out. The context of that is, of course, spoilerific, but it’s a great moment.

The pacing of the film is slow, which is understandable, considering the length of time Andy spends there. The payoff near the end is completely worth the wait, though I have to admit I was getting a little antsy in places wishing the plot would stop shuffling its feet.

Based on a Stephen King short story and adapted by veteran scriptwriter (and director) Frank Darabont. Both of those men can write very, very well. In a drama, characterization is the crux of the story, and it abounds in spades. Just about anybody with an important supporting role gets some kind of arc, and the overall story gently nudges the audience into thinking that hope isn’t really such a bad thing. It could have been shoved down the audience’s throat, but the film doesn’t really get hamfisted about it very often. I appreciate its respect for my intelligence. Oh yes, and the dialog is much sharper and wittier than I expected.

Then there is the payoff, which is so brilliantly set up and perfectly well-earned by Andy that you can’t help but laugh all the way through it. However, and this is entirely my own opinion, the story seems to lose a lot of steam after the payoff scene. I don’t know, maybe I just feel that way because the payoff was so brilliantly and intellectually delicious that I felt like it should’ve been time to drop the curtain and roll the credits.

Its been a few weeks now, but the movie has a score and a number of period songs that work well. Aside from that, nothing else to report.

The Shawshank Redemption is a very good movie that deserves its accolades. Oddly enough, it was nominated for several Oscars, but never won. It’s a great movie with fantastic characterization and dialog. A slow burn of a plot, but it rewards the audience’s patience. Yeah. I can recommend it with confidence.

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