Everyone has a list of movies that, when channel surfing (assuming people still do that in this age of streaming), you watch until the end no matter what when you find it happens to be on. For me, that list is fairly long, but I would wager that many people have this month’s selection on their list. And I used to feel like TNT had a contractual obligation to show this movie at least once per week. Hopefully, you will choose to read to the end of this write-up as if you stumbled upon The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Darabont) on TNT some random Saturday.
The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who is sent to prison for life in 1947 for the murder of his wife and her lover. We follow him to Shawshank State Penitentiary, where he befriends Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman, in the role that cemented his status as the greatest narrator in film history). We follow their friendship over the entirety of their time at Shawshank. Additionally, as Andy was a banker before being sent to prison, the warden (Bob Gunton) enlists his help in running some money laundering schemes.
The film, based on a Stephen King novella, is not groundbreaking in its methods. You have a clear protagonist to root for and clear antagonist to root against. You see the ups and downs of the life of a prisoner – some horrific and some straight up heartwarming. You get what I believe to be a fully satisfying ending and you get it in 2 hours and 20 minutes. Nothing about that is anything we haven’t seen 1000 times before and since. But there is something uniquely amazing about The Shawshank Redemption. I cannot really put my finger on what it is beyond a universally well-acted, well-written, well-directed film. You know you have a great movie when, in re-watching it, you find yourself smiling to yourself or even saying out loud, “Oh, I love this part.” I find myself doing that repeatedly with this movie and never seem to tire of it. Case in point, I tried to pick my favorite to list here and could not narrow it down to just one section.
It is arguably the best work of the careers of literally everyone involved in it. (I will listen to arguments that say Robbins is better in Mystic River or Freeman shines brighter in Million Dollar Baby or Lean on Me, but point to anything better from William Sadler, Gil Bellows, or Clancy Brown. You can’t.) I also challenge you to come up with another film about which you can say that. Is there any other film that features the best work of the careers of the entire company? Please reach out to me if you think something qualifies. I would love to have that debate with anyone.
Amazingly, The Shawshank Redemption was a box office disappointment upon its release – generally a flaw more in marketing than anything else. While not an official marker for film quality, IMDB still lists it as its #1 ranked movie of all time. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, though it failed to win a single one, losing primarily to Forrest Gump. In my mind, it was robbed of an eighth nomination for Bob Gunton as Warden Norton. You could make a very compelling argument that Warden Norton is one of the most evil characters ever captured on film – largely thanks to the effective subtlety in approach from Bob Gunton.
FUN FACT – Theatre lovers may recognize Gunton as the original Juan Peron in Evita (a role which earned him his first of two Tony Award nominations). His lengthy stage career also included turns as the title character in Sweeney Todd (his second Tony nom) and Antonio Salieri in Amadeus.
Just Watch says that The Shawshank Redemption is currently streaming on Sling. It can also be rented or purchased on virtually every other platform. The DVD is probably also available on the $5 rack at Wal-Mart.