Andy Dufresne: Yeah. 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.
F: A fair few times, maybe five?
R: Three times probably.
F: I think if this list was done based on the public vote, this film would be in the top 10 if not number 1 (the IMDB chart certainly thinks so). So why is this film only 72 on this list?
R: Because critics and general audiences often like different things! This is a very unflashy film, that almost feels workmanlike at times. But that’s not to say it’s not very smartly put together. The pacing, the beats of the story, the characters; they’re all highly effective. But I could probably name a dozen children’s films that paint a more complex moral picture of the world, and I think that’s what puts it in the “good but not great” box for a lot of people.
F: I think that’s quite harsh! I’m not ashamed to say that Shawshank is one of my favourite films. I think it has lots of layers and the moral questions it raises are many. Sure, some of the characters and plot points are a bit stereotypical and not very developed but I still think it should be higher up on the list.
R: It raises moral questions about the effectiveness of prisons, sure, but my issue is that it would be a very straightforward exercise to divide all the characters in the film into goodies and baddies. It would be more realistic if we saw Andy and Red do a few morally dubious things to help them survive in such a harsh prison (the money laundering doesn’t count because Andy’s so obviously coerced). But perhaps there are things I’ve missed that make this film great…?
F: But the inmates of Shawshank are criminals! Yet they come across as the ‘good’ guys and the prison guards as the baddies. It’s the role reversal of what you expect, morally. I know it’s corny, but this is a film about hope. I read an article where Tim Robbins put it well [MILD SPOILER WARNING]:
It’s a film about people being in jail, and having the hope to get out. Why is that universal? Because although not everybody has been in jail, on a deeper, more metaphysical level, many people feel enslaved by their environment, their jobs, their relationships – by whatever it is in the course of their lives that puts walls and bars around them. And Shawshank is a story about enduring and ultimately escaping from that imprisonment.
F: The whole article is worth a read. And I’m happy that it’s Shawshank rather than say Titanic which is the defining film of the 90s.
R: The writer of the article above, Mark Kermode, calls the film a parable, and I suppose that’s the right way of viewing it. But I like my characters to have some level of internal conflict, and Andy is just this faultless person, nobly bearing the injustice against him, from start to end. I suppose he does get a bit less shy over the course of the film, but really, he is a bit boringly perfect.
F: I disagree – I think that if Andy wasn’t the character he is then the film wouldn’t have the right message. Here’s someone who’s been placed somewhere that’s supposed to break him but it doesn’t. And it all comes down to that final conversation between Andy and Red where [SPOILER] we’re supposed to think it has finally got too much for him, making the big reveal of the escape even more satisfying. [END SPOILER]. We’ve spoken a bit about the central pairing of two male characters recently (Virgil/Gillespie and Butch/Sundance). Do you think Andy and Red stand alongside these?
R: No they certainly do not! There’s not a lot of meaningful interaction between Andy and Red, and until that penultimate scene you’ve just talked about, most of our understanding of what great friends they are comes from Morgan Freeman’s voiceover. It might be a great voiceover, but I’d rather we saw their relationship blossom than be told about it after the fact. Would you at least agree that this is a film that’s best the first time you watch it?
F: Yes probably especially if you don’t know what happens in the end. But as I said at the beginning for me this film has a number of layers that only begin to reveal themselves after watching the film multiple times. I think the film has strong performances across the board wouldn’t you agree?
R: Sure the performances are all pretty strong, although to me that feels like less of an achievement somehow when the characters are all so two dimensional. Particularly the baddies. Bob Gunton must have had a lot of fun playing Warden Norton, and if we’re calling the film a parable then it’s a totally effective performance, but to me the character never feels believable. But I don’t think believability is what they were going for, so I guess that’s okay?
F: Whilst the characters are not the most believable, I still think the story is. And for me it really works.
R: Sure, it’s a brutally efficient film, and delivers a real pay off at the end. But you’ve said twice now that there are layers to it and I’m still not getting what they are. Isn’t the reason the film is so effective because it’s built around it’s one core (and very universal) message: “you really should never, ever, give up on yourself”? What are the other layers?
F: I just feel that I get more out of it every time I see it. I agree that there aren’t lots of nuances in the story that you might miss first time around but it is these stories with a universal message that do seem to stand the test of time.
Is it worthy of the top 100?
R: It’s a fine film but too on the nose to be worthy of the top 100.
F: A thousand times yes. I’m just sad not to see it higher up on the list.
71 – Saving Private Ryan (1998)
73 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)