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'The Shawshank Redemption' (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 23, 1994
Though adapted from a Stephen King novella, "The Shawshank Redemption" has more to do with a man's internal demons than the kind that routinely rise up from overgrown graveyards. Like "Stand by Me," it's not a typical story from the horror King. Instead, it's a devoutly old-fashioned, spiritually uplifting prison drama about two lifers who must break their emotional shackles before they can finally become free men.
Set in a spooky old penitentiary with turrets and towers, the movie manages to be true to its Big House origins while incorporating such horrific mainstays as the clanking of chains and the creaking of the walls. There's even a raven that roosts in the prison library, where he is cared for by a darling old trusty (James Whitmore). For the most part, however, the movie expands upon cliches that date back to James Cagney's prison portraits—the twisted warden (Bob Gunton) and the sadistic guard (Clancy Brown).
Director Frank Darabont, who apprenticed on B-scripts ("The Fly II") and TV movies ("Buried Alive"), manages to fashion an improbable new pattern from the same old material in his remarkable debut. While he deals with the grimmest aspects of prison life (sadistic guards, gang rapes and befouled food), Darabont is chiefly interested in the 20-year friendship that sustains Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) .
The movie opens in 1947 as Andy, a prominent New England banker, is on trial for murdering his wife and her lover. Not only did he have a motive, but he had the opportunity—his footprints were found at the scene of the crime—and he had a weapon of the caliber used in the shootings. He insists that he is innocent, but the jury finds him guilty. Sentenced to life twice over, Andy is shipped to the maximum-security state prison at Shawshank, Maine. An introverted loner with an interest in reading, chess and rock carving, Andy doesn't make himself many friends until Red, a 30-year-veteran of the system, decides to take him under his wing.
Things begin to change for the better when Andy finds a way to use his skills and education to benefit his fellow felons. When he overhears the guard captain complaining about losing most of an inheritance to taxes, he offers to trade his advice for three beers for each of the men who are working with him that day tarring the roof.
His reputation as a financial adviser spreads, and soon he is doing the taxes for all the guards and running the warden's outside scams. This leads to a position in the tiny prison library, which Andy gradually expands into the best educational facility of its kind in the area. It takes him six years to do it, but Andy never gives up hope.
It is hope that allows the self-proclaimed innocent man to survive what may or may not be an unjust imprisonment. And hope is his gift to his friend Red, who no longer even tries to impress the parole board at his hearings. He's become "institutionalized," he explains to Andy, and would be a "nobody" on the outside.
Red's gift to Andy is absolution when he finally confesses his true sins. Whether or not he pulled the trigger, Andy blames himself for causing his wife's death; his redemption comes as he learns to give of himself over the course of this marvelously acted and directed film.
Robbins gives a performance that evolves with beautiful clarity from starchy banker to warm and loving friend. Freeman is sure to gain his third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Red. He also reads the film's lovely narration, much of it drawn verbatim from King's 1982 novella.
A detailed portrait of the routine of cellblock life, "The Shawshank Redemption" might change a few minds about the usefulness of incarceration in terms of rehabilitation. Mostly, though, it reminds us of that we all hold the keys to our own prisons.
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