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'The Shawshank Redemption' (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1994

"The Shawshank Redemption" starts off with the familiar brutality of a prison movie. Convicted in the late 1940s for the murder of his wife and her lover, banker Tim Robbins is thrown into the slammer (the Shawshank penitentiary in Maine) for two consecutive life sentences.

Seasoned inmate Morgan Freeman—the narrator in this story—watches as the soft-spoken, vulnerable prisoner undergoes the inevitable gang rape. Prison, Freeman tells the audience in that inimitably authoritative voice, "is no fairy tale world."

In this case, he's dead wrong. " Shawshank, " based on Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," is a complete fairy tale, a sentimental yarn full of the darndest twists and turns since Frank Capra rolled his cameras. Cinematographer Roger Deakins's images are burnished with that "long time ago" golden glow, the inmates are—ultimately—a bunch of cute pushovers, and the worst thing about prison (give or take an initiation rape or three) is the boredom.

"In prison," intones Freeman, "a man will do anything to keep his mind occupied." What Robbins, who has proclaimed his innocence all along, does to keep his mind occupied is the punch line of the story.

The institution is run by warden Bob Gunton, a cliched sociopathic despot who likes beating prisoners to death (to make a point) but will not abide religious blasphemy. Gunton is enthusiastically supported by sadistic guard Clancy Brown, who enjoys a regular round of assault and battery himself.

But it's clear from the start that Robbins, despite the hardships, is emotionally protected by his own innocence. He charms everyone and, eventually, parlays his business skills into a useful commodity. By the end, these grim authoritarians and jailbirds are eating out of his hand. In fact, Robbins's effect on everyone is so cheesily messianic, they should have called this "Forrest Gump Goes to Jail."

Speaking of jail, "Shawshank"-the-movie seems to last about half a life sentence. The story, chiefly about the 20-year friendship between Freeman and Robbins, becomes incarcerated in its own labyrinthine sentimentality. It wanders down subplots at every opportunity and ignores an abundance of narrative exit points before settling on the aforementioned finale. And leave it to pandering, first-time director Frank Darabont to ensure no audience member leaves this film unsure of the ending. Heaven forbid a movie should end with a smidgen of mystery!

Still, although "Shawshank" gradually deteriorates (or, if you're a sentimentalist, gets better and better), there are things to be enjoyed. The principal performances are the most obvious pleasures. Robbins —with those bulging baby blues and that voluptuous baby mouth—exudes the perfect kind of innocence to sell this tall tale.

As for Freeman, he's a master of comedic and poignant cadence. He could read the local real estate listings and make you weep—or laugh. "These walls are funny," he intones. "First you hate them. Then you get used to them. After time passes, you get so's you depend on them." From Freeman, these words read like existential thunder.

When Robbins, upon making Freeman's acquaintance, asserts that he's innocent of the double murder, Freeman smirks. "You're going to fit right in," he tells Robbins. "You know that everybody in here's innocent?"

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (R) — Contains profanity, violence and rape sequences.

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