Friday, February 6, 2015

AFI Top 100: #72 "The Shawshank Redemption"

Tim Robbins & Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

We're beginning to get to the films, more and more it seems now, on our AFI Top 100 journey that are as close to perfect as one could hope for. The second movie in a month to come away with a top score (something I try to give sparingly), so I thought I'd take this moment to explain what "5 stars" means to me. That score means that I would be hard-pressed to find or suggest anything to the filmmaker that could improve on the final product. It doesn't mean it's the best movie of all time, or that I can't like something more, or differentlyit simply means I, personally, can find nothing to complain about.

I can only give praise. The Shawshank Redemption, coming in at #72, is the most recent movie to achieve this goal. Based on the Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, we are introduced to Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins), an intelligent banker, as he is wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover in 1947. He is sentenced to two life sentences at the Shawshank State Penitentiary, and his timeand influence—as an inmate within those walls makes up the meat of the story. A wonderful cast of characters are introduced that we come to love, and some we come to hate.

Andy befriends Ellis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), a man with a similar life sentence who is the one you go to if there's something you need brought in. He's the smuggler you want on your side at Shawshank. During Andy's first week, when he's still a nobody and everyone is trying to figure him out, he asks Red to smuggle in "Rita Hayworth"  within days, a poster of the actress makes its way to Andy, and he hangs it on the wall of his cell just as the years at Shawshank begin to flash by. Years turn to decades, his poster decor evolving to mark the changing of the times. Being as smart as he is, Andy offers up his book-keeping services to the Captain of the Guard, who needs a little fudging done on his finances. Andy becomes so popular and so influential, he eventually focuses his time on educating the inmates, providing a real library for them, and dreaming of his freedom.

So much time passes in this film, it's a wonder that the filmmakers kept everything so cohesive. Conflicts arise and resolve, characters come and go, but not without a significant or devastating impact. My hands-down favorite character is the lonely prison librarian, Brooks, played by the world's cutest old man, James Whitmore. It is through the character that the film touches on the truth at the heart of the film: Prison is safety. You're there long enough to know nothing else, then not being there can wield a crippling blow to even the most repentant soul.

Now, I'm going to spoil a little something right now. I try not to do this, but I can't not talk about it. When Brooks shuffles out of Shawshank, uncertainty in his eyes, something comes over me I can't describe without sounding insane. Every time I watch this movie (it has to be eight times now), I begin crying uncontrollably, and continue to convulsively sob during Brooks' sequence of scenesand his touching narration ("...Not for an old crook like me...")—until they somberly come to an end. I've always been a crier, but Shawshank is a completely different animal. It's powerful and confusing and emotional, a true masterpiece.

I find it incredible how we can go from that spattering of scenes outside of Shawshank, so broken and lost, then back to Andy and Red... to being uplifted once again by the hope and dream of freedom. The film is poetic without being hokey. It's dark without spiraling into darkness. The themes are rich and complicated, and it's rare to have a story set in a penitentiary that doesn't focus on traumatizing, us or the characters. There's a bit of romanticizing that happens in Shawshank, which is arguably the wrong way to look at prison. Yet at the same time, it is a safety blanket for many people, which makes that perspective feel just right.

I speak with people about this movie often, and on several occasions, I've heard people say, exasperated and jaded, "Ugh, Shawshank Redemption, not into it." And I can't help but think... Who are you? Who are you, that your soul has turned black? I just can't understand turning your nose up to a movie like this; it's just too good, and pretty darn near perfect.

It shifts something scary into something normal, even comforting. I can't even express how difficult that is to accomplish. And the movie does it so effortlessly. I hope the AFI continues to pour love all over this movie for years to come. I, once again, expect a big jump on the 20th Anniversary list, Shawshank taking its rightful place in the top tier of America's best.

Rating:  ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next week for #71 on the list, Saving Private Ryan — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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