Quick, take a guess: what’s the highest ranked movie on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)’s user-voted list of the top movies of all time? It’s not Citizen Kane (#65), nor is it any well-established classic like Casablanca (#30) or The Godfather (#2). It’s not a modern fan favorite, like The Dark Knight (#4) or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (#12, 17, & 9, chronologically), either. No, it is The Shawshank Redemption, a quiet 1994 prison drama that flopped on its initial release in theaters.
It’s easy to see why the movie was slow to gain popularity. The title means nothing until you see the film, all the actors except Morgan Freeman weren’t very well-known, neither was the director, and at 142 minutes, it’s just a bit too long for most people to watch unless they had good reason to. But when the film was released on home video, word spread of its greatness, and soon, the film developed a huge cult following.
The film follows Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who supposedly killed his wife and her lover, though he insists he is innocent throughout the film. He is sent to Shawshank Prison, where it’s immediately clear he doesn’t fit in with the other prisoners; he is quiet and reserved, and some take him for snobby. But he soon befriends a man named Ellis Redding, or “Red” (Morgan Freeman), a man with a reputation for being able to get people things, like playing cards, or cigarettes, or, in Andy’s case, a rock hammer to carve out chess pieces.
The story of Shawshank covers a period of almost 20 years, in which there are no huge dramatic events until very near the end. The film is constructed mostly of small things that happen to Andy and Red that have dramatically changed them and the prison itself. Andy gets assigned to work in the prison library, Red gets Andy a poster, an old man named Brooks (James Whitmore) is paroled; these events seem more or less inconsequential (though always entertaining, or in certain situations, saddening), but each event is an essential building block of the world of Shawshank.
Director Frank Darabont directs with the confidence of someone who knows what to do to hold an audience’s attention. He keeps the pace of the film slow, but not meandering; he is simply making every moment count, and giving the audience the feeling that time is unraveling in a real way. The cinematography is beautiful, and there are certain shots of the prison that are awe-inspiring. But largely, the shots are designed to make you forget you’re watching a film. Cinematographer Roger Deakin avoids camera trickery and fast editing, instead choosing tactful shots that never show off the skill required to construct them.
Based on the short story by Stephen King, Shawshank remains a fantastic film with an inexplicable magic to it. More popular directors have mastered the art of making great films that also attract large audiences, but one of the peculiarities of Shawshank is that is doesn’t seem aimed towards anyone in particular, except towards the characters themselves. Perhaps that’s what makes it such an easy film to love; sooner or later when watching The Shawshank Redemption, you start to feel less like you’re watching a movie, and more like you’re watching people’s lives.