About a month before The Shawshank Redemption was released in theaters, director Frank Darabont showed the film to a crowd of film students at NYU. After the screening, a student surprised Darabont by saying he was insulted by the depiction of the “butch queer” Sisters posse that repeatedly rapes Tim Robbins in the film. Though the student was ceremoniously shot down by the teary-eyed (mostly straight) crowd, a sensitive Darabont managed a semi-apologetic response, pointing out that he had dedicated the film to his former agent Allan Greene, who helped Darabont get the directing gig at Castle Rock Entertainment but who died of AIDS shortly before the film finished shooting. I dismissed it then, but I should have known that Shawshank Redemption would become as beloved as it is now, ranking alongside other overrated “classics” like Casablanca, Schindler’s List, and the genuinely terrible Star Wars as one of the greatest movies of all time (on IMDb’s Top 250 list, the film currently ranks #3).
The appeal of the film isn’t exactly inexplicable. Where Douglas Sirk and George Cukor made melodramas (“women’s pictures”), and directors like Robert Aldrich and John Huston often made rock-solid noirs (“men’s pictures”), Darabont does something in between, ingeniously (at least from a marketing perspective) crafting films for “the sensitive straight man” (you know: that strange breed of heterosexual dudes who don’t have a problem telling a roomful of people they’re about to “pinch a loaf” but are careful to leave an empty seat between themselves and male friends when they go to the movies together). Films like Twentynine Palms use the sensation of horror to plumb our country’s hang-ups with sex and violence, whereas a film like Shawshank Redemption hides Big Issues behind cheap melodrama and noirish shadows. It’s prison life as directed from inside a closet.
Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Darabont’s film follows what happens to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) after he’s sent to prison for killing his wife and lover. From the soapy courtroom theatrics that open the picture to Andy’s prison escape (how’s that for a dramatic overhead!) and fuzzy-wuzzy reunion with Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) in Mexico, the film announces itself as Beaches for straight men. King’s best stories, including his brilliant It, are bathed in the glow of adolescent innocence and sexual desire. It’s an aesthetic and emotional philosophy Darabont understands and respects but erroneously applies to a story set inside a prison. Unlike the best prison dramas (like, say, Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, or any episode of Oz), sentimental twaddle like Shawshank Redemption (admittedly a few steps above a stinking pile of shit like The Last Castle) says zilch about life behind bars and human interaction.
I don’t mean to be cynical, but isn’t prison life supposed to be a little less nostalgic than this? Shawshank Redemption is supposed to be a drama, but it’s pitched somewhere between an intense thrill ride and romantic buddy comedy. When the evil Captain Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown) almost threatens to throw Andy off a roof, Darabont captures the moment with a dramatic overhead. Later, when the old man played by James Whitmore is paroled and discovers that he’s lonely on the outside, he hangs himself in a halfway house. The moment would be touching if Red’s trite narration didn’t imply that life in prison isn’t so bad after all. Freeman and Robbins are excellent performers, but just as the latter is forced to play a hollow saint, the former is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the story’s trite Hallmark-isms. Red’s race and social anxieties never register, and the one time he plays the role of “angry Black man,” he’s dutifully rewarded (how’s that for irony?) with a get-out-of-jail card.
“Your ass belongs to me,” says the evil warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) when Andy arrives at Shawshank. Clearly Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston) follows the same mantra. Twenty minutes into the film, when Andy walks into the mess hall, Bogs pops up his head and looks at the fresh-faced newcomer like a vulture that’s spotted fresh meat…or the love of his life. Naturally, it’s only a matter time before the redheaded leader of the Sisters gang fucks Andy in the ass. Except right before Bogs gives it to Andy, Darabont’s camera politely pans away. “I wish I could tell you Andy fought the good fight…and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that…but prison is no fairy-tale world,” says Red over narration. The irony here is that prison is a spit-and-polished fairy-tale for Darabont, who would rather linger on an old man feeding a worm to a sick little bird than truly confront us with the humanity of an unjust world.
Darabont’s version of King’s story is gimmicky and schematic and panders to our most contrived sexual anxieties and base notions of revenge and guerrilla justice. By film’s end, the heroic Andy has not only escaped prison, but every villain has been punished. Darabont’s lead characters in Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Majestic all bring to mind classic James Stewart roles from It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Shawshank Redemption is drenched in movie nostalgia, but the story’s fixation with movies and starlets like Raquel Welch and Rita Hayworth doesn’t mean anything. Just as posters in the film disguise plot twists, the film’s naïve sentimentality undermines serious issues of violence, rape, manhood, and male bonding. Indeed, after the Sisters are silenced, Darabont cranks up the unilateral act of hero worship: prison goes from being “mean and scary” to, well, “cute.” Andy writes letters in order to get books into the prison library, starts doing everyone’s taxes, and wins the hearts of guards and prisoners alike. Someone should bake a pie. Oh, wait, they do!