“The Shawshank Redemption” is one of those rare films that comes around once every so often, usually when you’re not paying attention. Released to dismal box office returns and critical indifference (Darabont points out in one of the special features that the major newspapers gave it bad reviews, which people remember despite the fact that many smaller outlets liked it), “Shawshank” still managed to snare seven Academy Award nominations. It didn’t win any of them, but it found a new life on home video and is now remembered as one of the best films of the 1990s; it even ranks number three all-time on IMDB (as of the moment I’m writing this).
So does it deserve not only all these kudos but a Special Edition DVD release for its tenth anniversary? As someone who first discovered it on home video, I think so. A prison melodrama that’s really about the friendship between two men at its core, “Shawshank” certainly had the potential to turn off both women and homophobic men. But if you look beyond the gloom and violence and try to understand that men can have caring relationships for each other without “don’t bend over for the soap” jokes, even in prison, I think you can appreciate the tale that Darabont crafts, which is based on a Stephen King novella.
The film tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover and ordered to serve two consecutive life terms in prison, which obviously means he has little chance of getting paroled. A banker on the outside, Dufresne strikes the other convicts as odd with his more refined ways, but he quickly becomes friends with Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), another lifer who keeps getting rejected for parole and is “a regular Sears & Roebuck.” In other words, Red can get you just about anything you want, and Andy soon comes to him with requests.
Dufresne first enters prison in 1947, but of course life behind bars was just as brutal then as it is now. Warden Samuel Norton is a hypocritical tight-a*s who expects his prisoners to read and follow the teachings of the Bible even though he relies on a sadistic head guard, Captain Byron Hadley, to keep order. When Dufresne discovers Norton’s fiscal corruption, he sees an opportunity to find a way out of prison by using his financial skills to help with the institution’s bookkeeping.
We root for Dufresne to succeed because we know he must be innocent, even if the film never gives us clear visual proof of that. After all, the entire underlying premise of the film becomes false if he did indeed commit such a heinous crime, so therefore we can safely assume that Darabont wants us to root for a wrongly convicted man. Throw in the change he brings about in Red (masterfully shown through three parole board hearings that place his character arc in sharp relief) and you can’t help but get a little choked up as that final beautiful shot of the film unfolds.
“Shawshank” first appeared on DVD as a bare bones release that cried out for the kind of royal treatment it deserved. Warner Bros. has obliged with this Special Edition, a two-disc set that immerses you in the film and exhausts at least 90 percent of the questions you may have had about it, which is what a great SE should do. Disc one features the film, its theatrical trailer (presented in full frame, unfortunately) and Darabont’s commentary, which is a first for the director. Despite his lack of experience recording commentaries, he does a great job with this one. His preparation for it clearly shows as he makes the points he needs to make and notes subjects that he promises to return to later (and does). His comments run the usual gamut of on-set recollections, bits of trivia (watch for Freeman’s son in an early scene) and notes about changes to the film between script and screen. He probably could have narrated documentaries in another life—his voice is that smooth and has that kind of cadence.
Over on disc two, a pair of documentaries, “Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption” and the BBC’s “Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature,” lead off the supplements. The principal cast and crew members were interviewed for both—the former focuses more on the production of the film while the latter tends to look more closely at its post-theatrical success, when word-of-mouth made it the biggest rental of 1995. They complement each other well, although there’s some overlap in the spots where the first documentary borrows from the second one, which was made a few years ago. Unless the director didn’t realize that the BBC feature would be included in this release, I’m not sure why any footage was reused.
The second disc also features an episode of “The Charlie Rose Show” that offers Darabont, Robbins and Freeman talking about the movie earlier this year. Again, some information is repeated (we get the point about people having a hard time with the title), but the three make some interesting observations about the film and why it has resonated so strongly.
Next up is “The Sharktank Redemption,” a satire that stars Freeman’s son, Alfonso, in his father’s role. It’s set in the offices of a Hollywood talent agency, which requires the filmmakers to sometimes tortuously twist the story a bit to make it fit the new setting, and it’s probably only funny to either those toiling in such lousy Hollywood jobs or those who know how brutal Tinsletown can be, but I still got a kick out of it. “Sharktank Redemption” places Freeman’s “Shawshank” voice-overs in a new light.
Stills galleries, two storyboarded sequences and a silly clip that’s just a shill for Sideshow Collectibles round out disc two. There’s some DVD-ROM content too, but it doesn’t work on the Mac, so I have no idea what it is. With my luck, probably topless photos of Rita Hayworth. (King’s story is called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption;” even though she was dropped from the title, Hayworth still figures in the film’s plot.)
So that’s it. “Shawshank” fans, get thee to a DVD retailer. Everyone else, like usual, should at least give this one a rental.