In my personal experience, and in the wider movie-watching world, one movie stands out in terms of universal adoration. The Shawshank Redemption, which celebrated its 20th birthday (of its limited release) this week, is undoubtedly a highly entertaining film marked by an uplifting story and memorable performances and lines, but how did it find its way to the top of the IMDb Top 250?! I love the film, but one must now take time to consider how this story of Tim Robbins
killing a guy cheating the system climbing through human feces manages to stand above iconic movies like The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and Schindler’s List in the minds of fans. Well, one does not have to wonder why people enjoy it more than Schindler’s List. Of course it’s more fun to be uplifted than to be #bummedout. A movie snob — we’re always looking at you, Wesley Morris — may point to IMDb’s list and say, “that’s just crazy normal people who don’t know anything.” Well go ahead and think that way, but GWW is here for you, the people. ANYWAY, let’s talk some Shawshank.
We could talk about realism and Sartre and other fancy things, but those things aren’t the factors that have pushed the movie’s popularity over the edge for two decades. This movie, despite barely covering its budget with its box office gross, has warmed the hearts of millions of people for years and years. To be fair, it did receive seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture (but somehow not for Tim Robbins’ performance), so the film was not a failure. But keep in mind: at the time of Shawshank‘s release, Morgan Freeman was not yet an untouchable American icon, despite several standout roles and a couple of Oscar nominations, and Tim Robbins hadn’t yet weirded everyone out in High Fidelity. So how did it do it? Why do we love it (and we do, don’t kid yourselves)? Why does Family Guy love it?
Hope is good. We like hope. As Andy tells Red, “…hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Now most of us don’t plan on ending up in prison for years at a time, but Andy’s preservation of his self and his unyielding faith in hope is hard to resist. Of course Red — through Freeman’s beautiful, gravelly sound — tells Andy, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” He may be right, but we don’t care. Watching these men, we’d rather see insanity than complacency. We’d rather see Andy fail over and over à la Luke Jackson than rot with Red’s dire vision in mind. Light within darkness will always catch our collective fancy, no matter how much darker the darkness we view is than our own perceived dim circumstances. Maybe this is where a greater man would bring in Sartre and Camus and other great existentialist thinkers, but what it comes down to is good winning out even when evil has the odds stacked up against the light. You may recognize this idea from the other titles scattered throughout that IMDb list you skimmed over earlier in this post. Cue Sam picking up Frodo and Batman leaning on Gotham’s goodwill and even a shred of color standing out amidst Schindler’s despicable chaos.
The key difference with Andy and Red, however, is their realism, their absolute humanness. All of those movies above are wonderful and deserve their high rankings, but Shawshank succeeds without imagining heroes or alternate worlds or remembering our darkest moments. Andy goes through Hell, and Red’s been living in it for decades, but their power lies in a far quieter strength than that of Batman, Schindler, or Samwise. The story finds its heart in the desire to live — not to save the world or a city or thousands of people — to save the self from collapsing beneath the pressure of bureaucracy and unjustness, evils realer to viewers than most others. The film manages to find that same light in the darkness, to warm our hearts and awaken our optimism — beaten down over and over again — in quiet tones, with the sound of a song and the taste of a beer; with the toss of a rock and another’s overturning; with subdued fortitude and relentless hope, never raising its voice but never losing its soul.