This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of one of the most beloved movies ever made, The Shawshank Redemption. This inspiring, emotional tale of hope based on the Stephen King novella has held the top spot on IMDb’s Top 250 list since 2008 when it dethroned The Godfather, but this film hasn’t always felt the love of audiences everywhere (not as in our Audiences Everywhere, we’ve always had a soft spot). When The Shawshank Redemption had its theater run back in 1994, despite its critical acclaim it was not only ultimately snubbed within all the categories for which it received Oscar nominations (defeated by the more crowd-pleasing Forrest Gump, toward which time has not been as kind), it also barely earned back its own budget. So what makes this film a pill that becomes easier to swallow as the years go by? Prison dramas like The Shawshank Redemption leave a slow burning, lasting impression that provides an insight into both the best and the worst of the qualities of humanity: violence and love.
I’m ashamed to admit that I never watched The Shawshank Redemption until a little over a year ago. Most of the reactions I always heard regarding the film revolved around the certainty that it would make me cry. My thoughts immediately reverted to, “Well who would want to watch something like that?” Stripped down, unadulterated, and realistic human brutality is difficult to see, and I don’t usually willingly expose myself to more of it than I have to in the news and in history books. It’s an understatement to say that prison, at least in the cultural imagination, is a breeding ground for this kind of brutality. When The Green Mile was released on DVD my parents rented it for us to watch at home one Friday night. I was 13 years old, and when I watched Percy cruelly and inhumanely sabotage Del’s execution by not wetting that sponge, I cried so hard my mom had to turn the movie off until I calmed down. For years I avoided movies that would elicit that kind of emotional response from me, and only recently have I realized that wall I’ve built has kept me from experiencing part of what makes the experience of watching a movie so special.
Director Frank Darabont doesn’t shy away from the raw violent reality of prison in The Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption, and people find the unflinching, realistic nature of some of the content to be uncomfortable to watch. Andy Dufresne is exposed to the power structure that eventually forms in all prison communities, and with power structure comes hierarchy. Combine this with the hopelessness, claustrophobia, and the raw nature of human emotion, and you can produce (or enhance) some vile and vicious human beings. When atrocities of sexual molestation and ruthless violence are displayed in an unhurried and pragmatic manner rather than, say, the throwaway presentation of violence in a horror flick, it has a heavier emotional impact. I hadn’t seen anyone present unapologetic scenes like the ones in The Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption until I watched the British prison drama Starred Up last week. Starred Up attempts to show viewers a man’s struggle with both his inner demons and the injustice that can occur in prison after the “justice” has been served. This film has been slowly but steadily creating buzz since it became available for streaming On Demand, and the impression it leaves behind won’t be fading anytime soon.
Although all of these films feature a plot revolving around the grim unfairness and the harsh realities of serving time, there is a balance to the brutality and the sadness. Where The Shawshank Redemption truly shines and stands the test of time is in its representation of the best human emotions: love and hope. Prison dramas aren’t always about the violence. They’re also about the relationships that we as humans can’t help but build wherever we are. It’s instinct. In Starred Up, Eric Love manages not only to channel his deep rooted anger by building friendships within a support group, he also begins to rebuild his relationship with his estranged father (albeit it’s a slow and painful process) in a place where he desperately needs someone on his side. In The Green Mile, Paul Edgecomb and John Coffey create what begins as hesitancy and pity and results in deep rooted respect and friendship. And in one of the most honest and endearing cinematic displays of male friendship, we have Andy Dufresne and Ellis “Red” Redding. Through the hardships and hopelessness of a potential lifetime in prison, these two men manage to learn from and lean on one another to build a companionship that holds steadfast beyond those walls. It’s a long time coming, but they finally both get what they deserve. Viewers get their happy ending, and The Shawshank Redemption as a film does too. And I think we can all agree that it’s worth the rough road it takes to get there.