I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.
The Shawshank Redemption
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 3
Highest Rank: 1, on Sinemia‘s Top 100 Must-Watch Movies & IMDb’s Top 250
Total Final Score: 6900
The Shawshank Redemption came out in the mid-90s to very little fanfare. While it was nominated for awards and high on most critic lists, it made very little at the cinema. It became a cult classic in the years following its release, and it’s no great surprise to see it on this list. It seems that from a user rating point-of-view, the rankings are the greatest for it, which is why it landed so high on this Top 100 list.
I have to admit that my first time seeing Shawshank was only a year ago. I can’t even say why, for sure, except that some movies really require your undivided attention, and I always assumed that it was one of those movies. I had seen The Green Mile at the theatre when it came out, and I couldn’t imagine a better pairing of author and director (Stephen King and Frank Darabont, respectively). I knew Shawshank was the same, but I feared that it would never live up to my expectations. I was right, in the end. While I liked Shawshank after my first viewing, I still think Mile is superior.
The movie opens with Andy Dufresne on trial for the murder of his wife and her lover. Cutscenes show him pulling out a gun from his glovebox, holding a bottle of alcohol, and tears streaming down his face. There is little evidence from the start that he did not murder his wife, aside from a testimony laced with frustration. Andy is a quiet man. His emotionless face gives away nothing, and he takes his prison sentence with a stoicism that leaves the audience uncertain of his innocence. The film is beautiful in its unfolding of the court to the bus transport to the prison itself.
Narration follows these scenes, with Morgan Freeman in his first gig doing voice over work. His soothing voice explains prison life, the first night for new inmates, and introduces the groups.
Prison life is cruel. From cigarette bets to villainous guards to rapists, this prison is a walking cliche. In the standard style of Stephen King, there are clear villains. There is little ambiguity about how the guards relish in their abuse of the prisoners. In the first night, one of the guards beats a new inmate to the point of death. When he is sent to the infirmary, he dies waiting for the doctor.
There seems little hope in this life, though, and we watch Andy through a series of montages. He fights, is beaten, and raped for what seems to be years. Somehow, though, he shows he still holds onto hope, despite Red’s insistence that hope is dangerous. He tells a great truth about how prisoners become institutionalized. That soon you come to depend on the walls of the prison, and when that is taken away, you realize life has left you behind.
The strength of the film is in the other stories it tells, but this last point is the real soul of the movie. When Brooks, a fellow inmate, is sent to the world, he enters a time and place that looks nothing like it did when he left it. He admits in a letter that he had seen one automobile before. Now the streets are filled with them. People are in a real hurry. His letter is read by the actor as we walk through a day in the life of Brooks. The bus ride he takes from the prison has him facing off-center from the camera while the other passengers look out the windows. This perspective is symbolic of his detachment from life. The divide grows as the scenes progress, until the very end when we see Brooks stand atop a table, scratch his name into the wood frame and kicks the table from under him.
Andy and Red’s friendship grows through the film, and it is the gem of the movie. Their interactions, with Red’s natural realism and Andy’s romanticism bring a great balance in the story. You believe these men are near inseparable. But it’s often clear that while he goes through the motions of his day-to-day life, Andy might be holding some secrets. As much as Red knows him, he doesn’t know whether Andy is guilty or innocent until he learns it with the rest of the group, and he certainly doesn’t have any idea about Andy’s future plans.
Shawshank is a beautiful movie, and the central themes of hope and friendship are universal. It is a timeless classic, and it certainly belongs to be on the top 100 movies of all time.