As The Shawshank Redemption turns 25, reevaluating its place among the greatest films of all time
It might have ruled IMDb ratings, and may be a near universal shoo-in for everyone’s introduction to serious cinema, but beneath its manipulative surface, The Shawshank Redemption, is actually soft, myopic and dare I say, spineless.
I first watched The Shawshank Redemption as a college student after someone suggested ‘It’s the best thing you’ll ever see’. He wasn’t wrong. It pretty much felt like the most cathartic piece of entertainment I had ever seen. Almost a decade and a half later, when I announced in a Film class – taught by a noted Indian film critic – that I didn’t think the film had as much substance, or depth, I was accosted by an enraged audience. The critic, though, agreed with me. Cinema, though it remains constant in itself evolves through perception. It’s the viewer that grows, travels sideways of the window the eyes first saw the film through. Naturally, suspicions and interpretations change. To the monument of film, once erected in time, it’s us, the tourist, who changes. It might have ruled IMDb ratings, and may be a near universal shoe-in for everyone’s introduction to serious cinema, but beneath its manipulative surface, The Shawshank Redemption, is actually soft, myopic and dare I say, spineless.
To say that the film is flawed would be stating the obvious. No piece of art is perfect, or without its subjective incoherence, rugged edges, so to speak. In the case of The Shawshank Redemption, the investigation of these flaws have almost always been restricted to the technicalities. Just how could Andy stick the poster to the wall once he had entered the tunnel he used to escape Shawshank? Could a man even survive inside a mile-long pipeline of sewage? And is it even possible to dig a tunnel that long in all those years, accounting for general bumps like bad health, prison duties and the odd persuasive uppercut of existentialism? A majority of these are scientific queries, to a medium that literally defies science by squeezing entire lifetimes into hours; considerably diminishing the possibility of film being an actual reflection of just about anything. That, however, doesn’t impede the medium’s powers of influence. In fact, cinema’s likeness to reality is perhaps inversely proportional to its powers of persuasion. Wherein lies the meekness of The Shawshank Redemption’s core ideas, its brittle spine.
To begin with, a film tipped around the fidelity of a married woman the film has no other mention of one – wife, girlfriend, mother, daughter. None. Are we to believe men in prison never talk about women? Set in 1940s America, the film also seems oblivious to the racial tensions of the time. Could a black man really have been the spiritual leader of so many white thugs in prison back then? Talking of spirituality, men in Shawshank prison seem somehow predisposed to beguiling clarity. They don’t speak out of turn, or cut one another mid-sentence. For a group of crooks, rapists, murderers and thieves they are, by a mile, better behaved than people on the outside. Maybe, that could be the case or the intended implication. Perhaps guilt or remorse refines the acoustics of verbosity. Still, it’s too perfect, too anthological in a literary sense.
There is then the film’s centre, excruciatingly flattering and deceptive. In one of its more memorable scenes, Andy plays a record on the prison speaker, that Red claims, makes every man inside the prison feel ‘free’. It is a naïve, self-regarding idea of freedom to suggest that men in prison would hum along with just about anything. To suggest that artsy indulgences might be the closest thing to freedom in jail, is probably a negation of ‘art for art’s sake’, in perhaps the least hospitable environment for such sugary cornucopia. I’m not saying men in prison can’t appreciate a song, or read a book, but surely it takes more to momentarily redeem a man’s humanity than a mere brush with high art. The film of course does its montages well, not in the least the ‘Brooks was here’ sequence, a well-orchestrated sob-piece that serves as a timely, grim reminder of the existential odds facing men in prison.
Beyond the pyrotechnics of feeble yet wise men, innocent, made-by-circumstance crooks, it’s the film’s courage that is lacking. In its quest to become a cathartic modicum, Redemption insists on innocence. That Andy did not do it. So we root for him to get out, after he has conveniently given a way out. What if Andy was in fact guilty? A good guy who did one bad thing in the heat of the moment. How dramatically would that change the film’s core, its cushy, hungry-for-empathy tone? A braver film would have either forced Andy to confront his being wronged or simply forced us to consider the humanity beyond his culpability. As a biblical, can’t-do-wrong character Andy is heroic unto himself. So is perhaps every other man in Shawshank. It’s easy to believe, even though it might be impossible to find.
Over the years I have grown wary of film’s compelling escape act. Like sugar, it is easy to fall for, but doesn’t substantiate the complexity of crime and guilt, or that of injustice. The technical flaws notwithstanding, The Shawshank Redemption cajoles you into believing in the good sides of men, and the potential to repeal their innocence, criminally by dressing them as likeable, innocuous, hard-done men without so much so a freckle of dread on their faces. There are better films on life in prison. Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) is ominously memorable. Even this year’s indie The Mustang (2019) does a comparatively better job. These films, however, don’t culminate in relief, or help men perpetually mutate into victims. Life’s prisons are more complicated, less dreamy, and acutely harsh without the possibility of an implausible tunnel leading you from ruin, provided all of us are innocent of every violation imaginable. Are we?
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