In effect, the film is both an indie and a Hollywood tale — as gritty and downbeat as a Seventies drama and yet building to a happy ending as exhilarating as in any Fifties or Eighties film. Darabont’s misdirection is a marvel. For its first two hours, it’s a slice of life and a character study with no particular narrative direction. Andy bobs up and down on the waves of the warden’s caprice, sometimes living relatively well and sometimes thrown in the hole. Things happen, people come and go from Shawshank and Andy and Red seem certain to die there. But in his magnificent third act Darabont doesn’t just pull off that breathtaking twist, he reveals that this is an entirely different kind of picture from what we thought we were watching. Many of the elements that appeared to have no particular narrative purpose, plus a few we didn’t know about, turn out to be pieces of Andy’s ingeniously engineered prison break. Other prison-break pictures announce themselves at the get-go and generate suspense; this one doesn’t hint at the escape until it’s already complete. Shawshank would still be a superb film even if it had ended after an hour and 45 minutes, in Seventies style, with Andy (Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson) dying behind bars. The third act puts it on a different plane, with wickedness punished and virtue rewarded. It’s as if a funeral for a beloved man turns into a party when the man crawls out of his own grave.
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