Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

I apologize for how long it’s been since my last post, but I’ve been unable to write due to a combination of school work, Minecraft, and laziness. To make up for it, I have a relatively long post planned for the near future, but for now here’s my review of Frank Darabont’s film, The Shawshank Redemption.

As you may or may not know, this film is currently the top-rated movie on IMDB and the friend from whom I borrowed this film also assured me that it was quote “the greatest movie ever!” and though I agree that it is quite good, great even, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “the greatest” and I’ll attempt to justify my reasons for this. Although I’ll mostly be focusing on the weaker points of the movie in this review, make no mistake, this is a great movie that you all should watch.

Normally I prefer to let a movie stand on its own merits rather than basing my judgment on it in relation to similar films that I consider superior, but in this case I think some comparisons will be useful to illustrate my points. In this case I will be using Cool Hand Luke and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the basis of my comparison. In terms of structure and content, all three movies are about a rebellious criminal who enters a corrupt and sinister prison of some sort, attempts to subvert it, and try to rally their fellow inmates. In all cases, the prisoners are displayed as lovable heroes who don’t present any real danger to society while those in charge of overseeing them are violent, villainous, and amoral. While I’m not certain how accurate a reflection this is of the US penal system, it does make for good drama. With the general similarities out of the way let’s now get into some specifics.

The Heroes
Both Luke (Paul Newman) and McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) are these easily likable rebels who seem to put on their crazy hijinks, and consequently get into trouble with the law, just for the hell of it. They’re charming, funny, anti-establishment, and two of the most memorable characters on film. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) lacks their charisma, but I think he makes up for it in other ways. Andy is far more subtle in his machinations and works his way into the system in order to subvert it. He’s smart, determined, and mysterious which in many ways makes him a more interesting character to watch as you attempt to delve into his mind and figure out what his angle is. The one problem I have with him is that he is eventually revealed to be completely innocent of his crime. Luke and McMurphy are clearly the heroes we’re supposed to root for, but there is still an element of moral ambiguity to them, especially in McMurphy’s case who is an unrepentant criminal. This both adds to their mystique and to the dimensions of the social commentary that these films present. But in Shawshank Redemption, they strip away much of this ambiguity, which is a key component of his character, and gives the audience an easy out, an element which I’ll go into more detail later.

The Sidekicks
Essentially, all the sidekicks are mostly just there to prop up the hero, as most sidekicks tend to do, but each of them adds their own little something to the story. All of the side characters in Cuckoo’s Nest are crazy (well, sort of), which makes sense since they’re all in a mental institution and they’re all pretty well developed. My personal favorite, and perhaps the most important, is the tall as mountain, ever-silent Chief. Without saying a word, he embodies the message of rebelling against an oppressive authority and transforms it into an internal struggle. In Cool Hand Luke, the only character who gets developed at all is Dragline. Like the Chief, he is a beast of a man, but comes to rely on Luke’s charisma to see him through his prison experience and give him hope. At times, he’s a more interesting character than Luke largely thanks to George Kennedy’s performance. Red plays an important role in Shawshank, as we see the world and Andy through his eyes. This serves an important structural role as it keeps us out of Andy’s head and adds to his ambiguity as Red tries to figure him out at the same time that we do, but much as I love Morgan Freeman’s narrative voice, I feel that at times it hinders the story and that Darabont should have let it just unfold on it’s own. Maybe this is because I’ve had it drilled into my head since high school that you should show rather than tell. Also, at times he seemed to just be another example of the “magical black man” stereotype which I don’t really feel like going into right now since that’s a whole other type of pie.

The Villains
I wasn’t really a huge fan of the villains in this movie. I felt that they were so overtly corrupt, violent, and despicable that they bordered on cartoonish. Again, I think this plays into the easy way out that this movie provides in the end, and which I’ll discuss in greater detail in the next section. In comparison, the villains in the other two films are far more interesting. The warden in Cool Hand Luke at first seems grandfatherly in his temperament, and though he gets vicious later he never comes off as completely devoid of morals. The head guard is even more of mystery, never raising his hand until the end, and always hiding behind his sunglasses without saying a word. In this way, you can never be certain of his ethics, but he still comes off as incredibly sinister. But none of them can compete with Nurse Ratched, one of cinema’s all-time greatest villains. She works so subtly to subdue and control her patients that she almost appears benevolent until McMurphy strips away the veil. Overall, the reason why they work better as villains is because they’re immorality is not readily apparent, operates beneath the surface, and they themselves don’t seem aware of it and treat as just a normal way of life, which makes it all the more terrifying.

The Endings
This is where I elaborate on my “easy answers” thesis which I’ve mentioned a couple times. Essentially, by having a clearly innocent hero who makes a clean escapes into paradise along with his sidekick while the clearly corrupt villains get their comeuppance, thereby beating the system, the story lets the audience off the hook and doesn’t leave them with questions about their role in the society/system with all it’s inherent injustices, or whether fighting it is even a viable option. In both of the other films, the hero dies at the end and this can lead into multiple interpretations. You could say that social change requires a sacrifice, a martyr for others such as the Chief and Dragline to rally behind. Or perhaps, the system is designed to destroy those who resist it, and any attempt to fight it is both futile and foolhardy. This is especially apparent in Cool Hand Luke, where the hero admits to giving up on his fight to Dragline who refuses to believe him and deludes himself into thinking that Luke never changed. The Chief realizes that McMurphy has to die after his lobotomy, because he no longer stands as a symbol of resistance. In both cases, the hero becomes a parody of his earlier self. Shawshank Redemption has no such difficulty coming to terms at the end. With the warden committing suicide (take that asshole!), the chief guard arrested (though I’m not sure what they could viably book him with), Andy escaping to Mexico (because once the dogs lose the scent there are no other methods to track down an escaped convict, especially one who’s visiting a bunch of banks and sending out mail which I’d assume would leave a paper trail), and Red redeeming his humanity and following suit (this seems to be the main point to the movie and the one that works best), it all just seemed too convenient and easy (despite the fact that Andy spent decades planning and preparing). It’s a shame, because this movie really had me up until the very end. You might say I’m a pessimist and just don’t like happy endings, but there are many movies with sappy endings that I quite enjoy. This one in particular just didn’t seem all that fitting to me.

In conclusion, The Shawshank Redemption has many strong elements such as fine acting, strong dialogue and characters, an intense and moving story, but it just seemed to lack a certain something to truly make it “the greatest movie ever.”

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