Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Shawshank Redemption

Here's something interesting, the Shawshank Redemption was a flop. Yes, the film voted the best ever by the borderline illiterate folks at the IMDB was a failure when released. Yet, being both a failure and a film that's extremely well regarded makes perfect sense here, in the strange and often contradictory world better known as reality.

So why did it fail, first off? Here's the thing, read an IMDB comment board. Now, imagine the person writing those comments saying "I would like two for the Shawshank Redemption." Plainly, there is no way that they could do it. The very people who like it best could never see it, because they couldn't read the posters. As they couldn't read the posters, they would assume that the movie is much too highfalutin' for them and go see, so they'd watch The Little Rascals instead.

(Yes, I recognize the irony of linking to the IMDB and mocking the users, thanks)

So then why is it a success after the fact? Well, it's partially because it was played every day on TBS at one point, so you could see it pretty much whenever you wanted. Still, there's a very good reason why the Shawshank Redemption is #1 on the IMDB and other TBS favorites like Rush Hour 2 continue to be overlooked for accolades. The fact of the matter is, Shawshank is a crowd pleaser.

The story has all the right elements. There's a man convicted of a crime he didn't commit in Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins), who meets fellow inmate Red - as portrayed by America's Grandfather and Voice of God, Morgan Freeman - whose soothing narration lets us know that everything's going to be okay. It lets people into an interesting world, strings along a fairly entertaining tale as Andy goes around implementing various schemes and improving the prison, leading to a twist ending that's satisfying and happy. It's the kind of film you can enjoy, with strong performances, and characters that it is easy to get attached to. We're allowed to be sympathetic for the characters because one was framed, the other was repentant, and the rest we really don't know the pasts of. I'm not immune to the charms myself, and while I'd never call it the best movie ever, it is a solid choice for an evening's entertainment.

Yet, it's got what I call the Shawshank Conundrum. We are in a prison. In prison, people tend to be there because they did things like murder, rape, robbery, and tax evasion. Since this takes place over a number of years, we can assume that tax evasion is not the primary reason why these likable characters find themselves behind bars. Yet, in order to like these characters, we can't exactly dwell on the fact that they might be slightly less noble than having the voice of Morgan Freeman might suggest. Also, because they're likable characters, having prison seem too awful might make the audience sad. So prison is played like a summer camp with light sodomy rather than a serious place which exists to lock up criminals. In spite of the loneliness inherent in spending many years behind bars, it never seems that bad. There's a line that goes "everyone in prison is innocent," and one can't help but think that they're being played that way.

It's a completely satisfying caper, sure, but it's also a little bit too squeaky clean. There's a bit of an edge, but not quite enough to make one think that, you know what, prison is a crappy place, I hope I never have to go there. So long as you don't think too deeply about the things the various characters have done and why they're there. Just enjoy the antics, become amused by Andy's antics, and laugh as all the pieces fall together. That might not sound like the best movie ever, but hey, it doesn't have to be the best to be good.

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