There is an idea: a good film, unless perhaps a comedy, will usually make their purpose plain and visible. We may not quite know what
message does it convey but we know it is there. (Some managed to push the envelope—I have no idea what Pulp Fiction
is about, but it seems that its purpose is precisely the lack of one.)
The Shawshank Redemption
is allegedly a tale about holding tight to a sense of self-worth even under harsh circumstances. It is about dignity, and how it rewards and redeems. When Andrew Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a New England-based "hotshot banker", was sentenced to prison, he fell from grace and was condemned to a fate where he will be reduced to a miserable existence. Dufresne didn't give in, and Shawshank
is essentially about his slow rise to "redemption", viewed from the eyes of Red (Morgan Freeman
), a fellow inmate who professed his disbelief in the brand of hope Dufresne is clinging to.
When one looks at it in that light, this would appear to be Shawshank
's "purpose". However, when we strip it bare this view loses all its prowess: it is a vague and perhaps overly fantastic lesson, made possible only by extraordinary turns of events and a great deal of crookedness and deceit, not unlike some sugary Christmas story when penned by a morbid artist. Good, perhaps, but certainly not exceptional.
But the film is
exceptional, and so its appeal must come from elsewhere. And indeed, it came from how the Shawshank Prison is splendidly evoked, with its thick mid-20th century air and a faintly adventurous prison atmosphere—this here is an alien world, it works differently from ours. It also came from how magnificently the characters come alive, how they quietly regret their crimes and get painfully assimilated to the monster that is Shawshank. Again, this is an alien world. They cannot walk out of it at will, and will probably refuse to. Theirs is a kind of quiet decline, losing fragments of their humanity a day at a time. It is this sort of subtleties (and Thomas Newman's beautiful score) that makes Shawshank
well worth watching; and certainly not only once.
That and the final moments are pants-soilingly rewarding.