On Sept. 23, 1994, "The Shawshank Redemption" opened in 33 theaters around the country. Here was the original review that ran in the Post-Dispatch.
THIS is not a propitious time for a movie that evokes sympathy for men in a maximum security prison. "Lock 'em up (but not in my back yard) and throw away the key" seems to be the prevailing sentiment.
"The Shawshank Redemption" gets around that problem in several ways. It's set in the past (1946 to 1967) in a rural state (Maine), so there are few reminders of contemporary urban terror, although there is plenty of old-fashioned brutality.
And the movie is blessed with powerful performances in the prisoner roles, not just from the stars (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman), but from such fine actors in smaller parts as James Whitmore, William Sadler and newcomer Gil Bellows.
The script does not lie to us about what these men did. Although the question of whether Andy Dufresne (Robbins) really killed his wife and her lover is not answered until near the end, his friend Red Redding (Freeman) is an admitted murderer.
In fact, Red laughingly tells Andy, "I'm the only man in Shawshank prison who is not innocent," ironically suggesting that the walls enclose a lot of guilty liars.
"Shawshank Redemption," based on a Stephen King story, is at heart a study of character and friendship, and it is a generally compelling (if overlong) one. Andy is a small-town banker who learns to survive for more than two decades in a tough prison, partly through his own wits, and partly through the friendship of Red, a long-term inmate who has figured out how to live fairly well within the system. Indeed, by the end the main question about Red is whether he can survive outside prison.
The movie gets a bit melodramatic toward the end, but not objectionably so. First-time director Frank Darabont, who also wrote the script, is helped greatly by the lucid, darkly majestic cinematography of Roger Deakins ("Barton Fink," "Sid and Nancy"). They tell a tough, complex story with clarity, compassion and considerable dramatic force.