'The Shawshank Redemption's title is only too apt. It's a tale about hope, salvation, and redemption, and the film itself was redeemed by home video. Released in the Fall of 1994, it was hampered by its ungainly title, then-lack of big-name stars, and weak studio support, and further harmed by a slack marketing campaign. Despite strong critical notices and, eventually, a half-dozen Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), 'The Shawshank Redemption' was a commercial bust. Audiences simply stayed away, and when it came time to hand out the big awards at year's end, the film was overshadowed by such pictures as 'Forrest Gump' and 'Pulp Fiction.' 'Shawshank,' while a well-regarded and wholly respectable effort, was ultimately seen as something of a failure.
But thanks to VHS and, eventually, DVD, 'The Shawshank Redemption' was reborn in a way unlike that of any other film in recent memory. Now straddling the top of IMDB's user-ranked top films of all time list (it routinely dukes it out with 'The Godfather' for the top spot) and lauded by critics as a modern classic -- including many who failed to recognize its brilliance the first time around) -- 'The Shawshank Redemption' is a cinematic miracle. It's a moving, engrossing, and impeccably-crafted experience that has, through perseverance and its sheer quality, transcended its original poor box office showing to emerge victorious. It's a film that elicits such passionate response because it's impossible not to champion an orphan -- here's an abandoned film that has now been found, which makes it even more of a searing testament to the endurance of the human spirit.
Based on a short story by Stephen King, there are no ghouls or ghosts in 'The Shawshank Redemption.' Rather, the story's monsters are very real and all too human. Tim Robbins stars as Shawshank Prison's newest inmate Andy Dufrane, a quiet banker convicted of murders he didn't commit. Quiet and withdrawn, he forms an unlikely friendship with fellow "lifer" Red (Morgan Freeman), the man at Shawshank "who can get things" and, unknowingly, begins to help Andy prepare his own escape. As the years pass, Andy's resourcefullness brings hope and change to the entire prison, including influencing the warden (Bob Gunton), who begins to craftily exploit Andy's financial skills for his own gain. But when information comes to light that could set Andy free, politics and corruption force him to finally make a break. The result is one of the most memorable and exciting finales in motion picture history.
It's often easy to quantify why a bad film fails, but much harder to pinpoint what makes a great movie work. There is just something in the very fabric of 'The Shawshank Redemption' that reeks of quality. Perhaps it is the intelligent and humane script by Frank Darabont? Or his restrained direction? Maybe it's the note-perfect performances, including Robbins (whose cold persona has never been so effectively exploited) and particularly Freeman, who gives perhaps his finest-ever portrayal that anchors the film with its dignity. The supporting cast (including Gunton, Gil Bellows and the wonderful James Whitmore) beautifully flesh out King's memorable cast of scrappy criminals and even more corrupt officials. The film is also exquisite in its period detail (the locations and costumes never feel less than authentic), beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, and is blessed with one of composer Thomas Newman's most evocative and emotive scores. There isn't a single element of craftsmanship out of joint in 'The Shawshank Redemption.'
Much credit for the success of the film must also rest with King. Perhaps because critics still often regard horror as a "low rent" genre, the author is laterally denied praise for his non-genre efforts. As with 'Stand by Me' and the vastly underrated 'Dolores Claiborne,' King is often at his best with more human-driven and less fantastical stories. 'Shawshank' is indeed suspenseful and even scary in some ways (the incredible sense of pressure and time that seethes through both the original novella and the film is palpable), but King is rarely commended for how artfully he defines his characters and modulates a plot that spans three decades. It's a delicate high-wire act, as the novella and film are able to evocatively convey the passage of time without meandering, which makes the film in particular feel both intimate and epic. By the time Darabont reaches King's conclusion -- adding his own subtle changes to the coda -- we feel like we've taken such a long, exhausting journey that the release is cause for elation. We share in the same sense of stirring hope that Red feels, and the now-classic last shot, of the waves of the Pacific stretching out forever into the horizon, is as uplifting as any ever seen in a mainstream motion picture.
It's no wonder that 'The Shawshank Redemption' seems to have touched so many moviegoers, to the point that its status as a modern classic does not seem overreaching. Like so many films "rescued" by home video, such as 'A Christmas Story' and 'Blade Runner,' it's stature has grown solely because of the connection is has been able to make with the audience. It's rare that a film can claim to truly touch people to the point of seeking it out -- not merely having it marketed to them like a consumer good -- which may be the real power of 'The Shawshank Redemption.' Here truly is a film that, if you love cinema, you simply must see.
Warner presents 'The Shawshank Redemption' in a 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1). This is a lovely presentation, one that nicely upgrades the video from the already-fine special edition DVD version (released in 2004).
The source appears to be the same as that used for the DVD. It's very clean, with nary a speck or blemish to be found, and the slight film grain present gives it a realistic and rich texture. Colors vary as the film's palette comes in two shades -- a more dour, bluish cast for the early prologue scenes and some exteriors, and a warmer, more orange feel for the majority of the rest of the picture. Hues are always clean and stable, and aside from some intentionally desaturated moments, fleshtones are accurate. Detail ranges from very good to exceptional (especially on close shots), with a generally strong sense of depth throughout. There is a tad bit of softness here or there, but it's appropriate to the intended classic look of the film. Black levels are pitch perfect, and contrast is also very well balanced. Finally, the encode is rock solid and I spotted no artifacts. This transfer matched my high expectations.
'The Shawshank Redemption' receives a first-ever Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/16-bit). It's a warm and inviting soundtrack, though rather light on envelopment and immersion.
Surround use is meager. I failed to hear much in the way of dynamic discrete effects, which supports the somber nature of the film well but offers little in the way of a strong rear presence. Atmosphere is likewise subdued. The track excels in terms of dynamics and richness, with a very pleasing and warm feel to the frequency spectrum. Thomas Newman's classic score (which is truly wonderful) really benefits from the expansive mid-range and strong (but not overpowering) low bass. Dialogue is the real star of the show here, and always sounds natural and well placed in the center speaker. 'The Shawshank Redemption' is no audio tour de force, but it sounds good for what it needs to be.
Warner produced a special edition of 'The Shawshank Redemption' for DVD in 2004, and those same extras are ported over to this Blu-ray. Most of the video materials are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, with subtitle options matching those found on the main feature.
Despite being a box office disappointment upon first release, 'The Shawshank Redemption' has since emerged as a modern classic. It is truly one of the most beloved films in recent memory, and earns such a rarefied distinction -- it's moving, human, and an inspiring story of hope and courage. This Blu-ray is a winner, with great video, solid audio and a nice package of extras. Though it might have been nice if Warner added a few high-def exclusives, no matter -- this is a Blu-ray you will be proud to add to your collection.