Here we are—the end of the long countdown of best films of all time. Ponty delivers, as always, with his clear, detailed analysis.
Boy, did he pick a great film. This flick was a perennial favorite on cable television in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can pick up with the story pretty much anywhere and it is gripping.
I won’t dilute Ponty’s review further with my commentary. He has done it so well, I cannot add anything of additional value.
With that—and at long last!—here’s Ponty’s #1 pick:
‘Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.’ Red, The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
It can but it can also keep a man alive. And it can give a man a reason to keep fighting and keep working for a better life. A better resolution.
My number one pick is hard hitting, it is honest, and the themes don’t look for hiding places in subtext; they’re in your face from the get-go and grow as the film progresses. Mainly those of hope and friendship, two unlikely bedfellows in an environment as punishing as this one.
If you have never seen this film, you’re missing out. This is my go-to when I find hope is being squeezed out of life. When I look at the world around us and see little inspiration. When even those who are fighting offer us no more than a crack in the door, a chink in the fence, the light extinguished before it has a chance to shine through. This film reminds me that even in the toughest circumstances, there is always hope. As the film’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) says, ‘hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’ I can see both positions on hope, that of Andy and Red, but I tend to lean towards Andy’s rationale. After all, where would we be without it?
The Shawshank Redemption sees Andy Dufresne jailed for the murder of his wife and her lover. He forms an unlikely friendship while incarcerated with Red (Morgan Freeman), himself in for murder, all the while staving off the attentions of the Sisters, a brutal clique led by Bogs (Mark Rolston), and Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), as crooked as many of the inmates and who is keen to use Andy’s talents as a banker for his own ends.
I’m not going to put up the trailer for this one. It’s a little too wishy washy for my liking, too disparate and vague. It doesn’t give you the heart of the film and this story, of toil and difficulty, of warmth and friendship, of redemption and hope, gives you heart in buckets.
The friendship between Andy and Red is the glue that holds this film together. Red doesn’t think much of Andy when he arrives. He sees the suit and his mannerism and thinks he has a silver spoon up his arse. When Andy arrives at Shawshank, to be fair, I don’t think he’s completely processed what is happening to him. He appears lost in his own thoughts, as light as a feather but his head, no doubt, weighed down by all manner of things. I like the scene at the start, where the prisoners trudge towards the entrance of the main jail, Andy looking up to see the high walls looming over him as he walks through the door and the prison swallows him whole. It’s a great shot.
It takes Andy a while to pluck up the courage to speak to Red, finally approaching the man who can get things when he requires a small rock hammer.
From that moment on, a friendship begins to form between the two men and life behind bars becomes a little easier for Andy. In fact, the benefits of being an educated man in jail are elevated when Andy chances on an exchange between Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) and his fellow guards, Andy informing Hadley that he can keep the majority of an inheritance if Hadley follows his advice. It’s a bold plan from Dufresne, Hadley being the sort who had zero problem killing inmates, and it nearly gets him thrown from the prison roof but he makes his case well and soon after, prison guards from Shawshank and other jails come to Andy for financial advice. Not long after that, the warden comes to Andy for help; however, his scheming extends further than just financial assistance for tax relief. He starts an enterprise of getting prisoners to work for a minimal cost outside the walls of Shawshank, undercutting established businesses and making money hand over fist, Andy being at the centre of all of this. It gives him a few perks, some of which he abuses in order to make life for his fellow inmates just a little more bearable. The one scene many viewers will remember is where Andy locks one of the guards in the toilet and plays Canzonetta Sull’aria (from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro) over the prison megaphones, so that everyone can hear it.
Red’s narration is the icing on the cake. ‘For the briefest moment, every man in Shawshank felt free.’ As they would. Music has a way of touching us in the darkest of places.
Warden Norton, benefitting hugely from Andy’s expertise, never lets Andy feel like he’s in control. He allows him gratuities, yes, but he is unafraid of punishing Dufresne when the latter pushes the boat further out than Norton would like. Bob Gunton, who plays the character, is superb, once again performing as the git of all trades. He was an overly officious git in Demolition Man (1993), an overbearing git in Broken Arrow (1996), and in The Shawshank Redemption, a corrupt and power hungry git. In fact, if you looked through Bob Gunton’s back catalogue, you’ll probably find a few more examples of his gittishness. In this film, he is a Bible quoting hypocrite and as the saying goes, Pride comes before the fall. Here, the fall is quite spectacular.
When a new set of prisoners are shipped to Shawshank in 1965, one of them, Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) befriends Andy, Red and his group, Andy eventually giving Tommy a chance to better himself by gaining qualifications behind bars. As Red and Tommy chat one day, Red tells Tommy what Andy is in for, sparking one of the most pivotal moments in the film; Andy’s innocence in the crime he was sentenced for. What follows from then provides the breaking point for Dufresne, the moment he chooses to escape and expose Warden Norton for his corruption.
I love the moment when one of the prison guards discovers Andy’s empty cell and Norton goes mental, finally realising how Andy got out. ‘Lord, it’s a miracle!’ he exclaims. ‘Man upped and vanished like a fart in the wind.’ I’ve used that quote many times.
Frank Darabont (The Walking Dead fans will know his name), who directed this masterpiece, knew exactly how to get the best from his performers but also how perfectly to track this film, in pace, in narrative, and in some of the most extraordinary shots committed to film. The final frame is absolute cinema perfection, the camera tracking back to give our two protagonists a private moment. We can only guess at what was said or the emotion behind their coming together, Andy and Red two pinpricks amongst the vastness of the sea and the sand. Their relief and happiness must have been indescribable and for us, the audience, we didn’t need to see or hear what they said to each other. Another director might have extended that scene but it would have been completely unnecessary.
How did Andy describe the Pacific Ocean? ‘You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live for the rest of my life.’
No memory. You think of that when you watch that closing scene. The past no longer matters, only the present and the future. Perfect for two men who have suffered personal and circumstantial tragedies and have come out the other side.
I couldn’t in all conscience write this review without pointing to the excellent score and soundtrack. There are only a few actual songs featured in the film but Thomas Newman’s score was beautiful. Some of my favourite pieces are those which accompany Andy during times of strife and isolation, the soft piano touching the turmoil running through either moment or character. In fact, a piece of this music runs through Red’s narration, as he reminisces on Andy’s departure. ‘I guess I just miss my friend.’ I don’t cry at films but this story moves me in a way no other film has. That part certainly makes me choke.
The film is narrated by Red so you get a pretty good idea of how things work in the prison. Not only that but the changes as time passes. It’s a good device to use and Morgan Freeman’s gravelly but nicely flowing tone certainly helps.
We’re also given snippets into the lives of other prisoners. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Red and Andy’s friend, Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) is released from Shawshank. He’s been in jail for most of his life and when he is let out, he finds the world has moved on much quicker than he’d have liked. He finds himself out of place, out of touch, out of time and deals with this transition in the only way he knows how. Red puts it well when he talks of how prison institutionalises a man.
I think for a lot of people in favour of capital punishment, this line of rationale escapes them. The walls around you and the changing world outside them would make life difficult for anyone freed after that long a period of incarceration. Even redeemed, the punishment would continue on release. Something to think about.
I must give a mention to Mark Rolston and Clancy Brown, who play Bogs and Captain Hadley respectively. Rolsten brings something almost animalistic to his portrayal of the leader of the Sisters, his time behind bars making him less human and more predatory. From his first encounter with Andy in the showers – ‘I could be a friend to you’ – he never lets up, though eventually one of the Sisters’ attacks comes up on the radar of the prison guards who, by now, have taken a liking to Andy and who deal out their own brand of punishment to Bogs, led by Hadley. I can’t think of anyone else who could have played Hadley other than Clancy Brown, his character described as the ‘hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State prison.’ He is as menacing in this role as he was as the Kurgon in Highlander and he provides every scene he’s in with a certain level of discomfort and unpredictability.
I don’t want to give the impression that this movie is a depression fest. There are some moments of humour in the film too. Tommy’s arrival adds a spark to the group, his youthful dalliances and mannerisms providing a lighter touch, his bombast playful though at times exploited. One of my favourite moments occurs in the prison library, which Andy has helped extend to the point of getting music in. Heywood (William Sadler) in particular revels in this new environment, crooning Hank Williams to his fellow inmates.
To the core of the film’s title, redemption is open to all, even those who have engaged in criminal activity. Are our protagonists redeemed? In most ways, they are. Andy points out that before prison, he was straight as an arrow; ‘I had to come to prison to be a crook.’ However, despite his innocence in the crime that had him locked up, he admits that he wasn’t great with his wife, that he was distant. Maybe Andy’s redemption comes in his self reflection, on who he was and how he plans to be better in the future. He certainly helps a lot of people in jail and many become finer through his influence. For Red, he reflects on his guilt throughout the film, and you can see he is redeemed. His connection with Andy certainly helps but you get the impression that he has faced and accepted his guilt and has tried to do and be better from then on. Yes, he engages in further criminal activity in jail but soft crime, lifting the mood of his fellow inmates by bringing a little enjoyment to their lives, whether it’s a poster here or a packet of cigarettes there.
I’ve given you key moments from this movie but that shouldn’t, if you’ve never seen it, spoil the journey and that’s the reason to watch this stunning film. It doesn’t matter that you know Andy is innocent or that he does finally escape from Shawshank. It doesn’t matter that you know Andy and Red are reunited. What matters is the progression. How Andy copes with life in Shawshank. How his friendship develops with Red and some of the other prisoners. How he clings onto hope when all seems lost. This is frankly the most amazing story ever put to celluloid and no one – cast, crew, director, composer – drops the ball here. This is a film for all times, one that will never age, and for those who are feeling lost, The Shawshank Redemption will remind you that hope can be found in the darkest of times and that clinging onto it and fighting for it can take you anywhere.
9 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Ponty’s Top Ten Best Films: #1: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)”
Cheers mate. 🙂
With the culmination of this review, of all these reviews, I should point out that from tomorrow, I’m offski. I may post over Easter and I’ll certainly check out the site, but the book comes first and now we’re done with this, I’ll have the time.
Thanks for allowing me to post on the site and thanks to your readers for putting it with my sometimes overly long reviews/posts. I should also thank you for helping me rekindle my love of writing. I think that is just what I needed and what will keep me on the right track this time. It’s been emotional, dude. 🙂
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Than you so much for your contributions, Ponty. I am thrilled that this humble blog has helped reignite your passion for writing. You are a very good writer, and I cannot wait to read (and to promote unabashedly) your novel when it is completed and published.
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What you do so well – you share as much about yourself as you do the movies you review.
I had forgotten how good this movie is. It’s been years upon years since I last saw it.
I was watching the clips and actually made a note on paper to ask you but you provided the answer before you knew there was a question – the Kurgon! I thought that was him, I only had to wait for you to tell me.
If movie reviews are any indication – and I think they are – you’re book will be humdinger, as us old folks say.
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Thanks Audre. I have a few things to work out, the odd conundrum, but the bulk of it is in my head and I’m hoping that once I get the flow, it’ll fall onto the page nicely. That’s why I can’t post for a few months. I don’t need the distractions.
Regarding the film, Tyler and I are both in agreement that if we wrote another top 10, the list would be very different. For one, I forgot to put Se7en and The Usual Suspects on any of my lists which is a travesty but my number one, on any countdown, will always be The Shawshank Redemption. It does what a great film should. It entertains, it touches you and it stays with you.
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_Shawshank_ is an excellent #1 pick, and it puts my phoned-in effort to shame.
My best advice to you—advice you have already put into practice with these reviews—is to write, write, write. The more you do, the easier it gets.
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There is a gentleman in England for whom I am proofreading. As you well know, a TCW commenter has sent me his book to see what an American might make of his journey. In both cases, excellent writers. It seems the English are not only naturally funny (meaning comedic), they are excellent story tellers as well.
Get to writin’ sos I can get to readin’.
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Agreed, Audre. I think Ponty’s film reviews should be published in newspapers.
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Are you in permanent contact with Brian, Audre? If you are, you’re very fortunate, as is he. He’s a great bloke, very intelligent and funny and has many an interesting tale. We’ve met him 3 times (twice up here and once in his backyard) and we’re richer for having met him. I bet he’d do Zoom if you asked him.
I also hope your Bible study with Abbie goes beyond the one meet you’ve had so far. She’s a lovely woman and I think the connection with a like minded Christian will do her the world of good.
Regarding the book, I’m taking a partially rendered blueprint and giving it some colour. Tina will be my proof reader. She’s got an excellent eye for detail and she isn’t biased in the slightest. If something doesn’t work, she’ll tell me straight. I’ve read her writing and she’s much better than I am. And talking of English writers, I’ve very much enjoyed your pieces, as well as Tyler’s and Dave’s. All of you are very different in style but you always ensure that the reader knows what the heck is going on. 🙂
I may pop back in the evening but then, I’m off. No doubt I’ll pop both of you an email in the interim. If I don’t see you this evening, have a very happy Easter.
Ciao for now! 🙂
Well – I don’t know how ‘permanent’ it will be but just finished chapters 9 & 10. He’s a very nice man.