I don’t generally care for the IMDB ratings, but back in college, in early 2010s, I did! Oh I did, and how much, you ask? I completed the glorious top 250 within six months or so! That much! And what was my takeaway from gorging on all kinds of films in all languages, you ask? I thought the list was terribly overrated. I, being a fan of David Lynch’s surreal cinema, and Terrence Mallick, and Bela Tarr’s slow cinema, the IMDB top 250 did very little to rock my boat. It did help that the list had some Kim Ki-duk, some Wong Kar-wai and some Park Chan-wook, but when it comes to Hollywood, I couldn’t even sit through half the films.
Amidst all that chaos, 250 films in six months, I watched The Shawshank Redemption in the third week of my random shuffling through the list. Afterwards, like I always do post a cinematic marathon, as I finished with the list and my mind calmed down a bit, I decided to relax for a few weeks and focus on my journalism studies, which I had terribly ignored during the second semester. It was during that time that BROOKS WAS HERE followed me to my bed for quite a few nights. At first, I had a hard time recalling what movie it was from; a small Google search told me it was from the #1 IMDB film, a film called The Shawshank Redemption. It was apparently the best film on IMDB and hence, if a film is universally loved, it couldn’t be that great. The Lynch fan inside me was ‘woke’ and ‘edgy’. The greatest love letters are found in the trash-can, I believed.
But then weeks passed, and as if BROOKS WAS HERE was not enough to give me uncomfortable nights, SO WAS RED began eating my soul up. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film. The same thing had happened to me back in 2008 when I saw The Dark Knight for the first time, and it didn’t leave me alone for weeks. I decided to give into my mind’s constant jabbering and sat down to watch The Shawshank Redemption for the second time to see what I missed. As the events of the story unfolded, I, lying down on my bed, with the laptop on my lap, lost sense of time around me and before I became aware of how powerful of an experience it was, Andy and Red were approaching each other on that beach in Zihuatanejo with blue ocean covering half the frame.
I don’t know whether this is a review or just an appreciation post for the film, or whether I have to write about how the film inspired me or gave me hope in the darker times. Maybe it’s the last one. Throughout my years of loving cinema, watching films for the learning, for the enjoyment, during the dark times, during the good times, in sickness and in health, every 2-3 months, I have to go back to The Shawshank Redemption. Whether it is to show an ignorant friend what he/she is missing, or just to try and understand what is so charming about the film. And so far, I have failed to pin-point the reasons, other than the fact that this film makes me feel feelings I didn’t know a film could make you feel. But I can give it a try to rationalise my unconditional love for The Shawshank Redemption.
The film doesn’t have a story. I haven’t read the Stephen King novel, but I think the film was adapted pretty much faithfully and nothing was changed much for ‘dramatic effect’, because the film doesn’t have enough drama to hook the Coppola worshippers, the film doesn’t have an interesting ‘jail-break’ plot that pans out as a thriller for Korean cinema watchers, the film doesn’t show Andy doing any heroic thing for 95 per cent of the film, barring those beers on the roof, playing classical music in the prison, and taking some extra books from the library. Actually, Frank Darabont, the director, had a very different take on what constitutes a protagonist. Andy gets severely beaten up by the fellow inmates who want to rape him, he is helpless in front of the warden (who, despite knowing Andy was innocent, sinisterly manages to keep Andy incarcerated), he spends quite a bit of his time in the ‘hole’, and he just seems like every other man in the Shawshank, except Red is scared of Andy committing suicide. Poor Red!
‘Hope..’ Red tells him initially, ‘… is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane.’ Andy, always somewhat optimistic, devours the message, sees Brooks getting institutionalised, and becomes terrified of becoming one hopeless man who becomes used to the life inside, becomes institutionalised.
To me, the narrator of the story, Red, comes across as the voice of reason, as the protagonist of the story. He goes through a character transformation from ‘Hope can drive a man insane’ to ‘I have to remind myself some birds aren’t meant to be caged’, to ‘Hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies’. During his last parole hearing, with a straight face, we see that Red is changed, from wanting to be freed, to accepting his ultimate fate of dying in Shawshank. But when he expected it the least, he is freed, and again, Red comes close to the fate Brooks suffered, mid-way through the film. But Andy’s last words to him, ‘Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’’, ring through his head and he does what Andy asked him to do. And sitting in the bus, on his way to the Mexican town Andy asked him to join him at, Red’s old eyes smile the brightest smile.
‘Get busy living, or get busy dying.’
I don’t want to get into the clichés and tell you the film has inspired me in the darker times or how during my struggle with anxieties and depression and hopelessness, this film has remained by my side like a loyal friend that tells me, ‘yeah, life is shitty. So what. If Andy could win, so can you.’ I don’t want to get into how I am feeling right now: even writing about the film makes me crave another viewing. And how my goosebumps have never settled down through the last hour or so that I spent writing this piece. I don’t want to get into how even if I myself ever make a great film sometime in the future, I am certain it can never be as good as The Shawshank Redemption. In fact, I believe no film can ever replace the place this film holds in my life. And this film will live on forever, because (and I wish I could somehow make you read this last line in Red’s voice) ‘NO GOOD THING EVER DIES’.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.