Awash in a bad news culture where horrors compete for media attention, America's appetite for feel-good movies is all but insatiable. How else to explain "The Shawshank Redemption," a film that hides a warm and cuddly fantasy about prison life behind sleek brutality, so much the better to convince us that even inside those walls life can be grand?
Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as two lifers who demonstrate the great things prison can do for you, "Shawshank's" sentimentality is of a New Hollywood variety. Its message of hope and friendship comes premixed with a sizable dollop of unappetizing violence, intended to convince audiences that what they're watching isn't a big glob of cotton candy after all.
Adapted from a Stephen King novella, "Shawshank" also labors under its literary origins, with many of its situations feeling like thin doodles blown up to big-screen size. And its entire last section has the kind of serious plausibility problems that are only apparent when the written word takes physical form.
The film gets its name from a fictional prison that is supposedly Maine's toughest. It is to Shawshank sometime in 1947 that bank vice president Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is sent to serve a double life sentence for the murders of his wife and her boyfriend.
In a brief prologue, we've seen Andy looking potentially murderous with a bottle and a gun in his hand, but he claims to be guilty only of confusion, not homicide. This strategy convinces no one, and Andy, a loner who strikes the judge as icy and remorseless, is convicted without a second thought.
Andy's arrival at Shawshank is observed by Red Redding (Freeman), an impassive 20-year veteran of the place who lets on that "there must be a con like me in every prison in America. I'm the guy who can get it for you."
The story of Andy's time at the Big House is related by Red in an extensive voice-over that is one of the film's strongest points. In fact anything Freeman touches is the better for it; his effortless screen presence lends "Shawshank" the closest thing to credibility it can manage.
The film's periodic bouts of violence are probably also intended as a reality booster. For Shawshank is run by a harsh warden (Bob Gunton) who believes in discipline and a sadistic guard captain (Clancy Brown) who knows how to enforce it.
What this leads to is a series of off-putting violent episodes--one man beaten to death, Andy regularly pulverized by a psychotic homosexual (Mark Rolston) and his pals--that are unpleasant to endure while adding nothing to the film's sense of truth.
That's because writer-director Frank Darabont, in his theatrical feature debut, has envisioned the rest of the cons as a bunch of swell and softhearted guys who were probably put away for overzealous toenail clipping.
This blubbery Boys Club atmosphere is underlined by the nicknames of Red's crew, guys like Skeet, Jigger and Snooze, who the audience is invited to view as harmless as Snow White's dwarfs. The inappropriateness of having them in the same film with vicious attempted gang rapes seems not to have occurred to anyone with any influence.
Instead, "Shawshank" concentrates on an overly long, two-hour-and-22-minute parade of prison vignettes that show, among other things, how Andy uses his financial expertise to make himself indispensable to the warden and his lackeys. Some of these moments are effective, but even nice performances like James Whitmore's as a veteran con lose something by being overly familiar.
Though Tim Robbins always seems to be playing a part, he is good at it, and it is nice to see the chaste though loving relationship between Andy and Red develop over 20 years. Paradoxically, it is "Shawshank's" zealousness in trying to cast a rosy glow over the prison experience that makes us feel we're doing harder time than the folks inside.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and prison violence. Times guidelines: The prison violence is noticeably harsh and brutal.
'The Shawshank Redemption'
Tim Robbins: Andy Dufresne
Morgan Freeman: Red Redding
Bob Gunton: Warden Norton
William Sadler: Heywood
Clancy Brown: Captain Hadley
Gil Bellows: Tommy
A Castle Rock Entertainment production, released by ColumbiaPictures. Director Frank Darabont. Producer Niki Marvin. Executive producers Liz Glotzer, David Lester. Screenplay Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce. Costumes Elizabeth McBride. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Terence Marsh. Art director Peter Smith. Set decorator Michael Sierton. Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.