The Shawshank Redemption was in an unfortunate position for awhile, it racked up a ton of Oscar nominations, but was the best movie virtually no one saw, in a year when Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction were poured all over multiplex screens. Once it came to video shelves, that's where Shawshank earned the reverence that people have for it today.
Based on (of all things) a Stephen King novella,Shawshank tells the tale of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins, Mystic River), a banker who was arrested and convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He's sentenced to two life terms in Shawshank prison, and after meeting the Warden and head guard, he meets Red (Morgan Freeman, Glory), a man who has been in prison for decades, institutionalized. Red is used to the jail, and has an established business as "a guy who can get things." Red doesn't believe that Andy is innocent of the crimes, and Andy doesn't believe in being institutionalized, doing what he can to stay sane and hopeful in the prison, despite numerous assaults from other inmates.
Frank Darabont directed and wrote the screenplay (much like he did for The Green Mile) with a unique quality of bringing familiarity to a group of actors. As much as you remember Red and Andy, there's also Tommy (Gil Bellows, Ally McBeal), Brooks (James Whitmore) and Heywood (William Sadler, Die Hard 2). Hadley (Clancy Brown, Highlander, as the unit's "meanest screw" shows you very quickly that you don't want to cross his path, and Norton (Bob Gunton, The Perfect Storm) is at first somewhat mysterious, but is ultimately a cold villain. In watching these characters interact and develop, you forget the mountainous runtime of the films he makes (this film is 2 hours 20 minutes, The Green Mile is over 3 hours, both are character driven pieces). By writing the films with the pacing he does, it gives you the impression of reading King's books. There is even heavy emotional investment in the character with even just a little bit of screen time. It helps that many of the characters are perfect in their cast roles, they deliver the dialogue with a familiarity that we've all grown to enjoy through the years.
About that dialogue, what struck me about it again after so many years was the fact that through the years, it's become even more suited to me as I've grown up through the years. How many times have we heard words like "obtuse" in movies? It's almost like the characters refuse to be compromised for the sake of success and popularity that, as it turns out, they've received through the years. All in all, I was amazed when I first saw this on video, and I really enjoy rewatching and revisiting the experience. To watch how Andy gently (but subtly) has Red believing in hope by the end of the film is worth the price of admission itself, and this film is a real experience. Darabont's grasp of Capra-esque film qualities really hits a home run here.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner presents The Shawshank Redemption in 1.85:1 widescreen using a VC-1 encode, and there's nothing too extravagant about the presentation. The standard definition versions never really stood out, and on Blu-ray, blacks are deep and consistent which is nice, but the image seemed to suffer from softness for long stretches of the feature, and the background doesn't really provide much in the way of depth and dimension. The print is in good shape for this disc, and the film grain is present throughout, but in terms of upgrading from the standard definition disc, from what I recall about it I don't really see much value in it.
I thought that Warner Brothers was eschewing some of the next-generation audio options, so I was kind of surprised to see that there was a TrueHD soundtrack here. The Shawshank Redemption is a quiet movie sonically, in fact, Freeman's voiceover work seems to pore over from the center channel speaker into the other front channels from time to time. Directional activity is fairly scarce through the production, and speaker panning is a little bit more seldom than that. While it's nice to have the luxury of a TrueHD soundtrack, the disc could have used a Dolby Digital track just fine here, which, oddly enough it has, along with a two-channel French track.
The extras from the two disc standard edition are all brought here for your dining and dancing pleasure. Darabont contributes a commentary to the film where he is full of opinions and stories from the production, and doesn't slow down too much as the film's almost 2 and a half hour running time starts to take its toll. While he does provide the usual directorial information on the film, such as scenes he re-shot, production anecdotes, and the like, he also has a good deal of humor to him, as he talks about the reasons for renaming the film, along with the reason why there are no deleted scenes (honestly saying that they "sucked so badly" he didn't want to include them). All in all it's a very entertaining commentary. A 30 minute look at the film and its subsequent video explosion, entitled "Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at the Shawshank Redemption" is next. The actors and some of the crew discuss the film's impact, King discusses his working relationship with Darabont, and the piece focuses more on the production aspect of the film. It's a little misleading, as the look back itself seems to be produced sometime around 1999, though it has a larger group of actors in it than the second retrospective, entitled "Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature." This piece, produced in 2001 by the BBC, spends equal amounts of time on the phenomena behind the film as well as the production of it, going so far as to include some local news footage from the film's premiere and some of the casting calls. They do what they can to answer the question "just what the hell is so great about The Shawshank Redemption?" The British film critics also contribute their opinions on the film too, and even some former inmates talk about what it was like in the prison that was used for the production. Even the film's religious overtones are discussed also. Of the two documentaries, I'd say this one is the one to watch. Next is an episode of the Charlie Rose Show that was recorded in 2004, featuring Darabont, Robbins and Freeman. Watching the first two featurettes pretty much covers the information you will get from watching this, though the rapport between the three is one that seems to pick up where it left off. "The Sharktank Redemption" is a 20 minute parody of things if Shawshank and Swimming with Sharks were combined, with Freeman's son playing the Red equivalent here. There are a couple scenes that make you smile, but you can skip this extra. Slideshows of storyboards, photo stills and movie collectibles and the film's trailer (in high definition) wrap up the set.
I almost forgot; this is another title that Warner has put in their book format, with over 30 pages of pictures, interviews and cast biographies.
While it's nice to see The Shawshank Redemption finally get a halfway decent DVD treatment after waiting for a few years, the technical merits of the disc are the only things holding it back from a gushing recommendation from me. Going through the extras provides for an adequate experience, and the movie itself is amazing to see. If you had the two-disc edition, you're double (triple?) dipping for the packaging and a TrueHD soundtrack, so I wouldn't do it unless you're fanatically converting your DVD library to high definition.