SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE – Blu-ray review

“Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me.”
–Warden Norton

At the time of this writing, November 2008, “The Shawshank Redemption” had the distinction of being the number-one most-highly regarded film among readers at the Internet Movie Database, beating out such heavyweights as “The Godfather,” Parts I and II, “The Dark Knight,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and all the other movies you’d expect to see on such a list. That is a remarkable achievement for a film that despite being nominated for a slew of Academy Awards did only moderate business at the box office during its initial 1994 theatrical run, and only gained its enormous popularity through home video.

See if this doesn’t sound familiar: You heard about “The Shawshank Redemption” when it first came out, but you didn’t think it would be something you’d want to see. You didn’t notice the fine print that said the filmmakers based the movie on a story by Stephen King; you just didn’t think the title sounded promising. Then you heard about how good it was from friends. And neighbors. And relatives. And people you met standing in line at the supermarket. When you finally did see it, you loved it.

“Shawshank” is long and occasionally drags, but it grows on you. I, too, had to allow friends to persuade me to give it a chance. Since then, I’ve loved it each of the times I’ve watched it, especially this latest viewing in high-definition Blu-ray.

The movie is about two men serving time at Maine’s Shawshank State Prison: Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, and Ellis “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Since Freeman narrates most of the film in a voice-over, it’s already a hands-down winner. Andy is a new inmate beginning a life sentence in 1947, having been unjustly convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Red is a longtime lifer who eventually takes the younger man under his wing. The movie covers nineteen years of their lives in prison, the slow, unvarying passage of time marked by the changes in poster girls on Andy’s wall, from Rita Hayworth to Marilyn Monroe to Raquel Welch.

Andy was the vice president of a bank on the outside, and he puts his financial skills to good use in the prison, particularly in doing some fancy, illegal book work for the corrupt warden. Red, on the other hand, is a guy who simply gets things for people; you name it, and he’ll get it. Year after year, the parole board rejects Red’s release, and year after year Red becomes more resigned to it.

Based on a short novel by Stephen King, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” the movie is as much a fantasy as any of King’s horror stories, yet thanks to screenwriter and director Frank Darabont, there isn’t a moment we don’t want to believe in. Darabont uniquely blends humor and violence, sweetness and brutality, in what may be the best “feel-good” movie of the last twenty years. Ultimately, it is a story of hope and triumph, a tribute to Man’s ability to overcome all odds. Andy never fails to astound us with his courage and cunning. He manages to ingratiate himself with the guards when he begins doing their tax returns and with the inmates when he helps build the finest prison library in Maine. (And managing to get them a cold beer on a hot day doesn’t hurt, either.) Andy’s final surprise, though, is his best, and it is enough to encourage even old Red to face the real world.

In a way, “The Shawshank Redemption” is itself a testament to overcoming odds. It is sentimental and stereotyped, yet we are able not only to suspend our disbelief but to root for it all the way.

Yes, there is the usual sadistic guard like Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), who delights in beating prisoners to death; the compliant fellow guards who go along with the inhumanity; the hypocritical head honcho, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), who preaches from the Bible while arranging murders in his own penitentiary; and the customary assortment of colorful characters like Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore in a standout performance), an inmate so institutionalized he cannot cope with the outside world when he’s finally released after a lifetime inside. But we expect these people. It wouldn’t be an old-time, inspirational-type prison yarn without them.

In a coincidental injustice, the Academy nominated the film for a heap of Oscars in 1994: Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound, and it won none. Admittedly, a number of other good films were up for Awards: “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Quiz Show,” “Nobody’s Fool,” “Blue Sky,” “The Client,” “Little Women,” “Nell,” “Legends of the Fall,” and “Bullets Over Broadway” among others. But I’m guessing that as the years pass, it will be “Shawshank” and maybe “Pulp Fiction” and “Gump” that will turn into bona fide classics, if they haven’t already. Oh, well….

Note, incidentally, that in addition to “Shawshank’s” uplifting charms, it deals primarily with a depressing subject, and it is not without its darker side. Bloodshed, sexual situations, rape, and strong profanity earn it a rightful R rating. “It’s a Wonderful Life” it’s not.

Video:
Warner Bros. present the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio using a dual-layer BD50, VC-1, 1080p transfer. Like its standard-definition counterpart, the Blu-ray picture quality remains mostly clean and clear, with good, natural colors and very little noticeable grain, even in darker passages. Like the SD version, there are moments when the video looks a tad too light, and other times when it appears a bit too dark. Also, the general focus seems a touch soft by high-def BD standards, with so-so black levels throughout. Facial details are not as well delineated as I’d like, with nuances a bit too smoothed over. It’s a good presentation, although it takes a darkened room to appreciate it best.

Audio:
You’ll find the English soundtrack available in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and regular Dolby Digital 5.1, both tracks working more extensively in the front channels than in the rear, which have little to do beyond reproducing a few moments of dining hall ambiance or crickets in the wind. Since this is mainly a story of narration and dialogue, don’t expect anything spectacular from the sonics, which are subtle but effective (remember that nomination for Best Sound). The advantage of the TrueHD is in its very slightly smoother response. However, be aware that as usual WB have made Dolby Digital the default, so you’ll have to remember to choose TrueHD at start-up if you have the audio equipment to play it back.

Extras:
The Blu-ray disc comes fitted out with the same set of extras found on WB’s standard-definition Two-Disc Special Edition, and again most of them are in standard def. Of course, the disc begins with an audio commentary by director Frank Darabont. Beyond that, there is a series of documentary features.

The first of the docs is “Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at the Shawshank Redemption,” about thirty-one minutes. It includes the usual comments from the cast and crew and a remark from Tim Robbins I can’t let pass. He says, “All the best movies were ignored when they first came out.” That is certainly true of things like “Citizen Kane” and “The Wizard of Oz,” but one can cite just as many examples of classic films that were enormously popular and critically well received when they first came out, things like “Casablanca,” “Gone With the Wind,” the first two “Godfather” films, “Star Wars,” and “The Lord of the Rings.” But I think we all get his point; some things do take time to simmer and ripen, and certainly that was the case with “Shawshank,” which started slowly and gained steam with the video market.

The next item is the documentary “Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature,” forty-eight minutes long and made in 2001 for British TV. Here, Darabont admits that director Frank Capra was one of his inspirations growing up; and, taking a cue from George Lucas, he acknowledges the influence of Joseph Campbell in shaping the movie’s character Andy as a mythical hero. After that, there’s a recent, forty-two minute segment of “The Charlie Rose Show” featuring a roundtable discussion with Rose, Frank Darabont, Tim Robbins, and Morgan Freeman.

As a kind of counterbalance to the relative seriousness of the documentaries, commentaries, and discussions, we find a twenty-four-minute comic spoof called “The Sharktank Redemption.” Written and directed by Doug and Natalie van Doren in 2000, it portrays the life of two guys who feel trapped in the prison of a Hollywood talent agency. They dream of escaping their office cubicles, and, of course, they do. Its humor is cute and restrained. Then, there are photo galleries, storyboards, a promo for collectible art work from the film, a Web link, and a theatrical trailer in high def and widescreen.

The disc comes housed in the back of a Digibook, a thirty-six page, hardbound book of color pictures from the film and text information about the cast and filmmakers. Things finish up with forty scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
“The Shawshank Redemption” is not a great movie in the canon of great and influential Hollywood movies, but as each year passes, I think of it more and more as a true classic. If you give it a chance, it can easily become one of your favorite films, and the Blu-ray edition with its improved picture and sound makes that all the easier.

Anybody who likes “Shawshank,” and that’s just about anybody who’s seen it, might also enjoy another prison picture of equal merit, Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke” from 1967. The older film, also available in Blu-ray, explores similar themes of personal worth but takes it a step further in a parable of New Testament proportions. Both films have the benefit of being thoughtful and entertaining without being overly preachy.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” –Andy Dufresne

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