The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #83

Fear can hold you prisoner.
Hope can set you free.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd September 1994 (USA)
UK Release: 17th February 1995
First Seen: TV, c.1999

Stars
Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder, Mystic River)
Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Invictus)
Bob Gunton (Demolition Man, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls)

Director
Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Mist)

Screenwriter
Frank Darabont (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Green Mile)

Based on
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King.

The Story
When Andy Dufrense is incarcerated in Shawshank State Penitentiary, he soon finds himself helping the corrupt warden money-launder his bribes. With a measure of protection from the guards, Andy’s common decency leads him to try to improve life for his fellow inmates, all the while thriving on the hope he’ll one day get out.

Our Heroes
Andy Dufrense is an intelligent fella, who earns himself protection and privileges by helping with the guards’ finances, and befriends fellow inmates by overhauling the prison library. He’s serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and her lover, despite claiming he’s innocent — like everyone else in Shawshank. Conversely, his new best friend, Red — the film’s narrator — is the only guilty man in Shawshank. He’s the guy you go to if you want anything smuggled in, like, say, a rock hammer…

Our Villains
Warden Samuel Norton is outwardly a good Christian and forward-thinking prison governor, but is actually a corrupt and vicious sonuvabitch, only too happy to use Andy’s skills to fiddle the books — and punish him harshly for any signs of dissent. His right-hand-man is the captain of the guards, Hadley, who’s not above giving a wayward prisoner a life-altering beating, or worse…

Best Supporting Character
The prison’s librarian, Brooks, who’s been locked up for almost 50 years. The old chap gets paroled, but the outside world has become a very different place by 1954, and he has a heartbreaking fate.

Memorable Quote
“The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” — Andy Dufresne

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Memorable Scene
Left alone in the warden’s office, Andy comes across a record. He puts it on the turntable, locks the door, and switches on the PA system, broadcasting opera to the entire prison. Guards and prisoners alike stop where they stand to listen. Meanwhile, the warden bangs on the door and demands Andy turn the music off. He leans toward the record player… and turns it up. The insubordination will cost him, but, for a few minutes, the beautiful music makes the prisoners feel free.

Making of
The American Humane Association monitored filming that involved Brooks’ pet crow. During a scene where it’s fed a maggot, the AHA objected — because it was cruel to the maggot. They demanded the filmmakers use one that had died from natural causes, which was duly found.

Awards
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Writing)

What the Critics Said
“The mood swings rigorously through every emotion as the cranky, wiseguy and downright crazed array of criminals bare the brunt of the turbulent life within the doomy Shawshank catacomb. […] If you’re miserable enough to look for gripes then, yes, it does drift on too long and who needs prison buggery again? Yet the ending has such poetic completeness you’re too busy contentedly chuckling to worry about sore behinds. This may have confounded American audiences — it flopped big-time on planet Yank — but a more divine movie experience you will not find this side of Oscardom. […] If you don’t love Shawshank, chances are you’re beyond redemption.” — Ian Nathan, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“it has these amazing feel good moments yet it doesn’t feel contrived. Most of us film lovers can see right through that. If Shawshank was guilty of that, it wouldn’t have stayed in the number one spot for all these years. […] I think there are a lot of things that make The Shawshank Redemption such a widely loved film and the movie just gets so many things “right” that they all combine to give us something spectacular: Feel good moments like the beer & opera scenes (which never fail to move me no matter how many times I watch this movie). Andy & Red’s friendship. The lesser characters such as Brooks & Heywood (and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Brooks Was Here” theme from Thomas Newman). Seeing the posters on the wall change, showing the passage of time. Alexandre Dumbass. The pet bird. Rita Hayworth. And, of course, the overall message of hope. More than anything, though, I think it’s Stephen King’s story and Darabont’s ability to give us scenes of pure beauty in a movie based someplace as awful as a prison” — table9mutant, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

The Godfather sat seemingly unassailable atop IMDb’s Top 250 for nine years, until The Dark Knight kicked it off, not everyone agreed, and when the dust settled Shawshank was the new #1, a position it’s now held for eight years. Naturally that means there’s been a backlash in some circles. It’s a particularly snooty kind of reaction in general, I find, probably because Shawshank is exactly the kind of movie primed to emerge as a consensus favourite: it has drama and darkness, but also humour and optimism, and elicits emotions across the spectrum — it’s neither too grim to depress people into not enjoying it, nor too sentimental to make them do that mock “throwing up” noise some people do when things get really schmaltzy.

I wager some people confuse the notion of “consensus favourite” with “produced by committee”, which sound similar — a large group of people coming to agree on something — but are actually very different. The latter typically produces bland work that no one loves; something that wouldn’t curry favour with the former. Is The Shawshank Redemption the greatest movie ever made? Not in my opinion. I’d wager not in the opinion of most of the people who’ve given it a score on IMDb that’s contributed to it being #1. But it is a very good film indeed — and, clearly, most of us can agree on that.

#84 will be… not a fucking Merlot.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

2016 #100
Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestBy many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.

Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.

Wretched RatchedHollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.

Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in Only sane one hereThe Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.

I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.

4 out of 5

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.