I feel somewhat daunted attempting to write about this movie, but it is apparently up to me.
Released in 1994, it was adapted from a short story by horror novelist Stephen King, written in what ultimately represents the peak of his career - the short stories collected from the 1970's to 1980's. It was a charismatically written, functionally clever yarn which serves as a reminder that a specialist in disturbing imagery could be humbled enough by the everyday realities of an American prison, and all that it represents, to abandon fantasy.
This movie transformed the careers of both Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who gave remarkable performances. It won 10 different kinds of awards, including a number of Oscar nominations (Best Actor - Freeman, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Sound, and Best Screenplay).
It was scripted and directed by Frank Darabont - a man who, though he has been getting work consistently since the late 80's, has been involved with no other memorable movies, with the possible exception of his first writing job, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors - an oddly interesting Freddie flick, and, for those unlucky enough to test the theory, the last one with any real pretensions to the inside of a movie theater. In 1999, he made a less memorable attempt to recapture his success with another prison movie (The Green Mile). Shawshank succeeds by virtue of his ability to subordinate his ego and focus his skills on executing the source material, which arrives on the screen almost completely untouched.
Typical of King's work, the story is set in Maine in the indeterminate middle part of the previous century. Atypically, it ends positively - King was not a writer afraid of an unhappy ending. It has the feel of something based on a true story, or a legend - perhaps it is a derivate work of something much older, or perhaps King did a stint of method writing and spent time in prison, or among former prisoners, doing research. A "writer's writer," in love with the drama of his career (writer's blocks, Chekhovian self-reference, and long rambling forwards), he was certainly capable of it. It is not a prison drama in the technical sense; it's a multifaceted story, lush with ideas and images, intellectually ambitious, and smartly paced, so that when it pauses, for a moment, we know it is to understand how long those we are watching wait. A long time - because the central image of the story is that of Robbins chiseling his way out of prison with a four inch rock hammer, one millimeter at a time, over decades of confinement.
The story is far too straightforward to demand interpretation; it never bludgeons us with symbols or pretensions to higher art. The prison is meant to be real, and taken as it is, and where credibility is blurred, it is done in the best manner of oral tradition, like a friend exaggerating a bizarre occurrence - too unusual not to be true. But of course the metaphor for the prison as life beckons, and when followed, it shows us a story with a kind of unassuming religious faith. Andy Dufresne is wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto, a special class of crime (Anatomy of a Murder) in itself. Of course, everyone is guilty in prison. We know for certain he is at least guilty of wanting to do it, and in the revelation of guilt and humanity that allows him to leave the scene of the crime uncommitted to return home alone, throwing his gun in the river unused, he is guilty enough to be sentenced to life.
The prison ecosystem is brutal and Kafkaesque, both in the casual, inevitable depravity of its inhabitants and administrators, and in the scale of time that life must be suddenly measured in. Dufresne is like Jesus or Ghandi, but without the alien-ness of overweening faith. He works slowly and bravely to build the prison into the kind of place he can live in, resourcefully exploiting his skills, building a library, educating inmates, making a useful place for himself. The silent, persistent scraping at his cell wall becomes faith, which, in an astounding revelation, opens escape to a happier, glowing life after. The fantasy of escape, so powerful as to be dangerous, hints at darker truths about how good life on the outside really is - reminding us, perhaps, of childhood fantasies about adult life. The suicide of an aged inmate, just released after decades of imprisonment, is both a chilling indictment of the pretensions to rehabilitation that prisons, even today, sometimes aspire to, and an invocation of the fear of death, a place with no memory, where the lives that we have built have no significance.