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The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Warner Home Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 12/2/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/23/2008

I sincerely hope that there aren't that many people who say, "Hey! Let's watch a prison movie!" (Although, I'm sure that there are certain circles where this idea is put forth on a regular basis. Yikes!) Most films set in a prison fall into one of two categories: they are either exploitation movies where the focus is on sex and violence (enter the words "caged" or "heat" into IMDB and see where it leads you), or they focus on the human suffering which can occur behind bars and the result is incredibly depressing. So, if you come across a prison film which is not only not exploitative, but uplifting as well, then it's a rarity indeed. And if the film is a modern classic, then it must be cherished. So, if someone says, "Hey! Let's watch The Shawshank Redemption!", you may not be in for a party, but you're in a for great movie.

The Shawshank Redemption opens in 1947. Despite the fact that he maintains his innocence, bank employee Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He is sentenced to two life sentences in Shawshank Prison. Andy arrives at Shawshank and finds it to be a cold and hostile place. The warden, Norton (Bob Gunton), claims to be a religious man, but he's actually a cruel tyrant, allowing his captain of the guard, Hadley (Clancy Brown), to do his bidding. Andy keeps to himself at first, but eventually reaches out to fellow prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman). Red is the "man who can get things", and agrees to get Andy a small hammer used by rock collectors. As Andy traverses the dangers of prison, he and Red becomes friends. As the years pass, Andy is able to impress prison officials with his accounting skills, and this earns some privileges for himself and his friends. But, this doesn't change the fact that Shawshank is a dark and dangerous place, and Andy always yearns for freedom.

The Shawshank Redemption is based on a novella by Stephen King, and the film was adapted and directed by Frank Darabont, who also made the King adaptations The Green Mile and The Mist. Of course, Darabont isn't the first filmmaker to bring King's work to the big-screen. Many, many writers and directors have made movies from King's stories, but a lot of these have missed the mark. (To say the least...I'm looking at you Graveyard Shift and The Mangler.) Often, the problems with these films lies in the fact that someone has attempted to take one of King's mammoth stories and shove it into a feature-film length box.

However, this issue should be easily avoidable with The Shawshank Redemption, as it's based on a shorter work by King. Unlike many of King's other stories, this one doesn't involve any monsters, vampires, time-traveling, ghosts, or any other supernatural elements. While the story is intricate and has many twists and turns, it's still fairly straight-forward. So, anyone could have adapted this, right? Well, they probably could have transcribed the overall story into screenplay from, but anyone who has ever read King's work knows that he has a very unique voice, and Darabont has a gift for capturing this. King's success has come from the fact that he can take fantastic situations and infuse them with believable characters and emotion. Darabont is able to do this with his script for The Shawshank Redemption, making the film feel like much more than a "prison film".

Darabont's faithful adaptation is only one factor in the movie's success. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman both deliver knockout performances in the film. Many people make the mistake of attributing great acting to volume and bravado, but both of there men prove that great acting can lie in quiet, subtle gestures. Robbins portrays a man who is dumbstruck by the fact that he's actually in prison, and even after nearly two decades inside, he carries himself in manner which is closed off to the rest of the world. Andy is described as being "cold" by the other inmates, but we never get the feeling that he doesn't care and that there isn't a turmoil of emotions raging inside. Freeman's Red is a man who had come to grips with the fact that he's not leaving prison and he's decided to make the best of it. Although people approach him for "favors", Red remains cautious and picks his friends carefully. As the story progresses, Andy and Red become very close friends, and Robbins & Freeman portray this with ease. The Shawshank Redemption never pretends to be a fast-paced, action film, but it does take the time to create these characters and relationships and this truly draws us into the film.

Obviously, the last thing that we remember about a film is the finale and The Shawshank Redemption has one of the best. After two hours of watching the characters endure some very bad things, the ending is able to wrap everything up in a very neat package, which enables what could have been a very depressing film to stay true to its theme that hope springs eternal. Of course, some may have issues with the fact that The Shawshank Redemption asks us to sympathize with criminals, but the movie also asks us to see them as human beings first. While the film falls under the label "prison movie", as it does deal with men in prison and what that experience is like, ultimately, The Shawshank Redemption is about people simply trying to survive and their journey results in a movie which is a modern classic.

The Shawshank Redemption spends a week in the hole on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 (despite the fact that the box says 1.85:1) and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain in some shots. There are no defects from the source materials. Darabont shot the film in a very natural style and this transfer serves its well. The movie is loaded with institutional greys and browns, so the occasional splash of color looks very good. The image is never too dark or too bright. The picture has a nice amount of detail to it (we can pick out facial features and details on walls), but the depth is lacking at times. The Disc offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.7 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, especially in crowd scenes, where we can pick out minute rumblings. Surround sound effects are OK, but I would have expected more given the fact that an enclosed space could offer many opportunities for the characters to be surrounded by noises. The surround and subwoofer do kick in during the famous thunderstorm scene.

The Shawshank Redemption Blu-ray Disc has several extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from writer/director Frank Darabont. If you've heard one of Darabont's tracks before, then you know what to expect. The man is both a filmmaker and a film-fan, and he takes us on a journey through the making of the movie while showing a great deal of excitement. His comments are often scene-specific and he has a lot to say about the actors and the story.
"Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption" (31 minutes) is a retrospective featurette which contains interviews with Darabont and the main cast talking about how the film was ignored upon its initial release, but grew in popularity and stature. The piece then examines the story, as well as the individual characters. It looks at the set and the themes in the film. "Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature" (48 minutes) is a mini-documentary (which looks as if it was made for British TV) which probes the popularity of The Shawshank Redemption. It contains comments from Darabont, Robbins, Freeman, David Schow, Sadler, and others. This becomes a very in-depth look at the making of the film, beginning with Darabont's decision to adapt the novella. There's a tour of the prison location. We then get a discussion from critics of why the film took off the way that it did. In "The Charlie Rose Show" (42 minutes), Darabont, Robbins, and Freeman sit down with the chatty talk-show host to talk about the 10th anniversary of the movie. "The Sharktank Redemption" (25 minutes) is a spoof of the movie set in a dull office. The Disc contains six still galleries (Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Supporting Cast, Tim & Morgan, Behind the Scenes, and Storyboards), as well as the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the movie. The Disc comes packaged in a hard-bound booklet which contains color pictures, cast bios, and essays about the movie.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long