Earlier this week, The Shawshank Redemption celebrated it's 20th anniversary from opening in theaters. I saw it in theaters at the time, as a 12-year old, with my friend A.J. Harra. As 7th graders just trying to be cool at the time, we loved watching horror movies, and we just thought we were going to see something based on a Stephen King story. What we got was radically different, but it changed my life. Shawshank has been one of my 3 or 4 favorite movies ever since (often alternating in and out of the top spot with Pulp Fiction and The Third Man), and it largely helped define within me why cinema is such a powerful art form. I wanted to somehow celebrate the film on its 20th anniversary this week, and such a piece of writing could have taken many forms. Artistically and technically, this film is a masterpiece, but those are things I probably didn't/couldn't realize twenty years ago. When the film first made a major impact on me, it was as a story, and I wanted to try and focus in on why. As a 12-year old, I couldn't possibly empathize with people serving life sentences in jail, but anyone, across all ages and all lives, can understand the power of finding hope in a situation that ought to be devoid of such a sentiment. That's the real power of this story, the way the main characters locate hope and meaning within small things. No scene better illustrates that than this one, where the main character, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), has just opened several boxes of materials donated to the new prison library he's organizing.
The skill in a film like Shawshank is that it figures out subtle ways to manipulate you in manners that you don't even notice, but which build to incredible moments. When this scene begins, there's no score, and for most of the first half of the film, the score is very quiet and subdued, never drawing too much attention to itself. The effect means that when the Mozart record first gets turned on, the viewer emotionally responds to it the same way the prisoners do--like an aural beacon of hope that's been absent from our lives for far too long.
The thing I notice more and more about this film every time I see it is the way the shots are composed. It relies on a certain stillness, and a way of using camera distance to emphasize both grandness and entrapment. The scene begins not just in the confinement of an office, but by the camera confining every physical action as the only element of the screen. Opening a record, dropping the needle, taking the keys, locking the door, turning on the PA system, the guard dropping his Archie comic. And then, as the voices begin to soar, everything opens up. The shot in the workshop at about the 1:25 mark of the video is the first one where the camera emphasizes scope, by slowly panning back until Morgan Freeman's character is revealed in the foreground. Then the same thing happens in the infirmary, beginning with a close-up of a face and moving sideways to show all of the patients stepping into the light and the music. But the truly great moment starts at 1:37, as the camera moves out into the prison yard, slowly craning upwards to show the entirety of the prison in complete unmoving thrall, before finally moving behind the loud speaker that they're all so intently focused on. It's just a perfect shot.
When people think of this movie, Morgan Freeman's incredible narration is often one of the first things that comes to mind. Nearly every scene is punctuated by his words, and his voice is our gateway into thinking about these characters. But in this scene, director Frank Darabont wisely lets the music speak for itself before having Freeman enter the proceedings. By the time Freeman tells us that "for those briefest of moments, every man in Shawshank felt free," we've already seen the proof of that statement.
After this scene, Andy emerges from his two week punishment in solitary confinement by telling his friends that it was the easiest time he ever did, because he had the music in his head to keep him company. It's a way of acknowledging that the power of great moments can stay with us, no matter how brief they were in the first place. This four minutes of filmmaking has stayed with me for twenty years and counting.