If you are simply looking for a good movie—one with good performances and with a compelling story–consider watching The Shawshank Redemption. Based on a short story by Stephen King, called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the film, which was made in 1994, has stood the test of time and appears on many “Best Movie” lists. It was initially a failure at the box office, but has gone on to become a cult classic.
The story is straightforward: In 1946, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover, even though he stubbornly proclaims his innocence. He’s sentenced to a life term at the Shawshank State Prison in Maine. (Side note: There is no actual Shawshank State Prison in Maine, though Stephen King refers to it in a number of his novels. The movie was actually shot at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. An old Gothic pile of a building, its brooding presence is almost another character in the movie).
The ugly realities of prison life are quickly revealed to Andy: a corrupt warden (Bob Gunton), sadistic guards led by Capt. Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), and brutalized inmates. But Andy is made of tougher stuff than we initially suspect, and he does not crack. He survives abuse, and uses his banking skills to win favor with the warden and the guards. In exchange, he is able to improve the prison library and bring some dignity and respect back to many of the inmates. And he befriends another inmate, the memorable “Red,” played by Morgan Freeman.
The trajectory of the movie is initially down, down, down, leaving the viewer to wonder when Andy will hit bottom. Meanwhile, director Frank Darabon toys with our perceptions. Your gut feeling is that Andy is innocent. But as we see him descend further and further down into hell, a fate usually reserved for villains in movies, we start to wonder: maybe he is the murderer.
If I were to guess why the The Shawshank Redemption has remained so popular, it could be the way it speaks to the human condition. As I watched it, I started to wonder how I would hold up under extreme adversity myself. Also, while the movie portrays the terrible things that can happen to a person in prison, or in life itself, for that matter, it also shows the unexpectedly wonderful things that happen, as well. So it’s like being on a roller coaster ride with unexpected dips and climbs, and it occurs to us that life in prison or out of prison has similarities. Are we looking at hell or heaven? It’s the power of the movie that it leaves us wondering.