The T&C 100 - #1
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
And somewhere in California, Tom the Dog recoils in disgust.
Once upon a time I fancied that I might end up a critic. That has not been the case, and at times like these, I sometimes wonder if that was for the best. Because, while I can tell you that The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite film, and while I believe it, I for the life of me couldn't really tell you why.
But, as to leave off here would be kind of a cheat after writing about 99+ films, I'll try. Let's start with the obvious. It's based on a Stephen King story. And not just any story, but the best story in what is probably his best story collection - the four-novella collection Different Seasons, the same collection that also yielded Stand By Me to the screen. It's a prison story, kind of old-fashioned, and yet it's not as if I have some noted taste for prison movies. And, as you'll have seen from the 99+ movies discussed thus far, my movie tastes tend to turn to the fantastic - fantasies, musicals, grand adventures, big action films. Shawshank is none of these. It's in many ways a throwback to the kind of quiet, immaculately constructed drama which is very little represented on my list.
And yet. And yet I return and return and return to this film, never tiring of it, as I can tire of even films I love dearly if I revisit them without a big enough break in between viewings. Not Shawshank. If I'm flipping through channels and chance upon Shawshank (which, given how often TNT ran it there for a while, was not hard to do), I can easily sit and watch, and be as engrossed (or nearly so) as I was thirteen years ago. Why?
The story is the biggest reason, I think that's clear. Part of it is just the elegant way king's story unfolds. How we meet this man, unsure of whether or not he committed the crime he is accused for, and slowly come to like him. How what starts as a fairly "plotty" film, about a murder and a trial and an incarceration, seems to become a fairly lightly plotted character study. And how at the end, the gears of the plot start ramming home the surprises and revelations. How that moment of catharsis, of triumphant victory, the film gives us is completely earned, and how it is not allowed to erase the hardships we've seen. And how the sappy ending works so beautifully - again, because it is earned and fair.
Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are another big reason. It is this film that made me fall in love with Freeman as an actor, and Roger Ebert (in, I believe, his original review) got it exactly right - it's the way he uses stillness and quiet that makes his work so effective here. Something we can easily forget in thinking back, but that Freeman makes real for us as we watch is the notion that Red came by his prison sentence fair and square. We meet a basically good Red, but the qualities that allowed him to kill his wife are still there in subdued form, and Freeman lets them breathe. And Tim Robbins has never been better, using his tall, lanky frame to wonderfully ironic effect, giving us a hunched, almost mousy Andy who hides his sharp anger well.
All that being said, I honestly don't think I would revere Shawshank as much were it not for Thomas Newman's score - easily one of the best Hollywood has produced over the last twenty years. Newman, like many a film composer, can repeat himself too much, but here he gives us music that perfectly captures the quiet, understated nature of the film. Case in point - when Andy escapes, and we are given that aforementioned cathartic moment of triumph, overhead camera shot of Andy with arms outstretched in triumph and all, Newman's core is appropriately grandiose - crashing cymbals and fanfaric horns. But listen to that moment closely. As soon as the fanfare dies we hear a very quiet descending figure playing, tinkling its way down the scale. It's a sad little musical moment and it's presence is entirely deliberate - the score is acknowledging that, as happy as Andy is, he is also devastated that he has lost as many years as he has. Good as it is to escape, it can't erase the hell he has endured. And that the score gets that, and helps us to get that? Wow.
Maybe most of all, though, is Shawshank's central theme, one I love and gravitate towards in other art. It's the theme of hope. And not hope in an easy, "wish for what you want and you'll get it way." I mean hope in a deeper way. What the film tells us is that even in hopeless situations, even when there is no actual chance at redemption or escape from pain or suffering, the mere act of hoping can have immense power. It's the central theme of the film, I think. (It's also the central theme of the song "To Dream the Impossible Dream," a point very, very few singers seem to understand). And, for me, it's a profoundly moving one.