Shawshank Redemption, The (1994): Darabont’s Oscar-Nominated Prison Drama, Starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins

The motivational strategy behind The Shawshank Redemption is similar to that behind other recent movies, revitalizing and updating an old genre, in this case a prison drama, which decades ago would have been made for Jimmy Cagney or George Raft.

Scripted and helmed by Frank Darabont, who makes an impressive directing debut, the movie is based on Stephen King’s novella, one of the few non-horror books that he has written. I have not read the book, but my guess is that some of the movie’s deficiencies–its old-fashioned morality and message about camaraderie and redemption–are also evident in the original material. Yet, it’s a handsome (cinematography is by perennial Oscar nominee Roger Deakins), well-acted melodrama, with superlative performances from Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.

Shawshank Redemption begins in 1946, with the voice-over narration of “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a lifer at Maine’s maximum-security Shawshank jail. Though there are other characters in the background, the story focuses on the friendship that evolves between “Red” and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a young banker who’s serving two life terms for murdering his wife and her lover. As in most prison sagas, we get a representative gallery of types, from the toughest to the most sensitive prisoners. And yes, there’s violence in the scenes in which Andy is savagely raped by a gang of sadistic thugs.

But the resourceful Andy uses his banker’s smarts and knowledge to wangle favor with the brutal chief guard Hadley (Clancy Brown) and Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), for whom he sets up a money-laundering scheme to cover for his various scams.

As a director, Darabont uses deliberately slow pacing and attention to narrative detail. In today’s landscape some of the scenes would be considered too long and dragging, even if they are occasionally fractured by some action.

We are also required to suspend disbelief, as the prison break is quite implausible. The filmmakers’ intention seems to be in making a moral allegory rather than a realistic story.

The movie contains many “big” scenes, some of which are effective, such as Robbins prison escape and victorious emergence into the rain.  But others, like the one in which Andy plays an operatic duet on the public system, don’t ring true, and seem to be there for sensationalist effects.

By now we have seen so many prison dramas that we are familiar with all the conventions of this tired genre. Shawshank Redemption works so hard to please the crowd audience that it often neglects issues of plausibility. Moreover, all the characters are basically good, misunderstood, men. And there’s one glaring, falsely ringing message: Andy comes to accept his punishment as “redemption,” not for killing but for emotional detachment and insensitivity to his wife, which he believes drove her away from him.

If the film is ultimately satisfying it’s a result of the superb, multi-shaded performances by Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, two great actors who add depth and resonance to a trice-told story. It might sound as faint praise, but Jack Warner–and Jimmy Cagney–would have been proud of Shawshank Redemption back in the 1930s.

In its initial release, the movie was a commercial disappointment, but later on, with the help of video, DVD, and TV screening, it began to acquire an increasingly growing audience to the point of becoming a cult item.


The movie references the iconic sex goddess Rita Hayworth (“Gilda”), whereas Darabont’s next film, The Green Mile, employs the Astaire-Rogers musical, “Top Hat.”