Desperately doing time 'Shawshank Redemption' is a powerful prison film

October 07, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Frank Darabont, the writer and director of "The Shawshank Redemption," appears not to have been to the movies since about 1957. But that's not bad, that's good. It's certainly why the film feels so fresh: It's in no rush to get to the big sequences; it allows relationships to develop naturally; it's got no mechanism driving it forward, no race against time, nothing cheap and melodramatic.

So, it moves slowly? Deal with that. You'll thank me, I guarantee you.

Derived from one of Stephen King's rare non-horror novels, it deals with a horror of a different kind: the horror of hopelessness and its dangerous cure, the elixir of possibility. It's about the world's dregs who, somehow, inspired by one courageous guy, are given a little sliver of tomorrow in which to believe, possibly saving them from their own savagery.

The film opens in 1946, with young banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) on trial for his life. It's an old song, almost country-western, even if the locale is Maine. Her cheatin' heart, the her being his wife and the cheatin' being with her lover. Both of whom now have a slight weight problem: They carry the extra grainage of two or three .38 Special slugs apiece. Since Andy was seen earlier that night with a gun and a buzz on, it seems logical to assume he's the bad boy. He's sentenced to life . . . twice.

He's dumped in the yard of Shawshank Prison, a 19th-century pen that looks an essay on the meaning of hell as written in brick, mortar and the spirit of gleeful vengeance. Its architecture wisely counsels: Abandon hope, ye who enter. He's there, on a darkling plain, where ignorant morons clash by night, and also by dawn, by noon and by mid-afternoon.

Andy, with his fair features and softness, is soon sexually assaulted by the Sisters, the prison's inevitable bully-boy homosexual clique. They make his life quite unpleasant for a number of years. But Andy has talents that resurrect him from this ignominy.

Something of a financial genius, he's soon doing the guards' income taxes and concocting dodges for the warden to launder illegal profits, badgering the state legislature for funds to expand the library, becoming mentor to a generation of otherwise helplessly illiterate violent felons and turning into . . . Mother Teresa?

Well, almost. For a long long time, "The Shawshank Redemption" is content to chronicle life behind the walls of Shawshank. It moseys along like a life sentence, although helped enormously by the vividness of the place itself: an old, clanky dungeon (actually in Ohio), cold, clammy, metallic, so that the bang of a cell door reverberates with doom. The movie makes you feel the despair that eats the soul, and the fear, when the last click of the guard's key is heard and you are alone in the night with the rats and your yearnings and despair.

The most passionately felt relationship is between Andy and the narrator, Red Redding (Morgan Freeman), another lifer and perpetual parole rejectee. Red is something of a literary concoction, a seemingly illiterate man who narrates events in an ironic and astute voice that sounds as if it's been educated in the nuances of Virgil and Homer. All right, movie-phony: But it's one of the film's great advantages that so fluent is Freeman, so intense and beguiling, that he can take you over and around that objection.

He takes you over another as well: that much of "The Shawshank Redemption" is passively narrated, rather than actively dramatized. This lazy technique is almost always the death of any film or novel.

Henry James wasn't wrong when he said the three rules of fiction were "Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize." Darabont works by another principle: "Synopsize, synopsize, synopsize." Yet, so vividly felt are the convicts -- besides the two leads, the others are William Sadler, grand old James Whitmore and Brian Libby as a younger inmate -- that the passivity of the storytelling seems not stale but of a different technique.

The plot per se clicks in very late. It has to do with Andy's usurpation by Warden Norton, played with glum vitality by the prissily ominous (and superb) Bill Gunton, in an elaborate scam that makes Andy's life better but seemingly bonds him forever to the warden, who cannot afford to let him go.

Laboriously, Andy creates a financial fiction that enables the warden to put away hundreds of thousands of dollars. At last there comes a time when a new witness brings in information on Andy's crime, something that might get Andy out of stir, but the warden cannot allow such a thing and acts with ugly resolve to prevent it. Andy is seemingly victimized once again: the perfect schlemiel, money-smart but reality-dumb, outfoxed by the warden's more feral cunning, once again broken and punished.

Of course, the secret pleasure of the film is that the Andy we've seen all the long hours (standing for all the long years) isn't the real Andy at all. He's much smarter and tougher than anybody ever imagined.

Passivity again: The whole climax is reiterated in flashback. We don't see it happening, but experience it as Red re-creates it, although he cannot, by the laws of logic, know it yet. Yet so steady is the iron grip of the piece that such limp storytelling seems completely acceptable.

"The Shawshank Redemption" is ultimately about the blossoming of the spirit in the muddiest of grounds. It isn't pretty. It is long. But it's very powerful.

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear Stephen Hunter's reviews of current films, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

"The Shawshank Redemption"

Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman

Directed by Frank Darabont

Released by Castle Rock

Rated R

*** 1/2

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