“Get busy livin’ or get busy dying.” One of the more famous phrases in cinema history and originally uttered by Tim Robbins’s Andy Dufresne, the only innocent man in all of Shawshank Prison, is more often recalled as said by Morgan Freeman’s Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding. The point is that the things we hear, the stories we tell, are often clouded by memory, influenced by what’s popular. In the same way people misattribute this quote, so often do they argue as to the quality of Frank Darabont’s (The Green Mile) 1994 prison drama, adapted from a novella by Stephen King (The Shining). This film runs as frequently on cable network TNT as it is mentioned in the hallowed halls where cinema discourse takes place. While some find the film overrated and over-run, The Shawshank Redemption is the rare film which can be seen close to 40 times and is still not anywhere close to feeling to trite. That sense of newness, despite its familiarity after all this time, is getting a boost thanks to a 4K UHD restoration from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment on September 14th. Though it does not include any new bonus materials, the visual elements are so different thanks to the HDR inclusion that the film feels practically new.
After being found guilty of killing his wife and her lover, banker Andy Dufresne is sent to Shawshank State Prison for two consecutive life sentences. There, he meets friendly fellow prisoners Red, Heywood (William Sadler), and Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), while trying to stay out of view of a degenerate gang called “the Sisters,” led by the malignant Bogs (Mark Rolston), and violent captain of the guard, Officer Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown). After working a gig repairing the roof creates an opportunity for Andy to help Officer Hadley with a financial matter, things slowly start to shift for the former banker, including putting him in a close vicinity with the warden, Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton). Outside of prison, Andy walked the straight and narrow, but, inside, he became a criminal and found his own way to freedom.
If you’re familiar with the film (and chances are, if you’re curious about the 4K UHD edition, you very familiar), the above summary is a tad misleading. The sexual violence that Andy experiences isn’t mentioned, nor is the constant threat of violence from men who perceive themselves as better. There’s no mention of the hope that comes when Andy learns of evidence that could clear his name, nor the indescribable pain that comes from having it ripped away from supposedly God-fearing men. Then again, we should know not to put our faith or trust in such a place or the people in it when we watch Red get rejected for parole at least twice during the course of the film. We should, I know, not side with criminals who are actually guilty of their crimes, but Darabont had a way of taking that short story and making it both timeless and profound, encouraging audiences to consider that humanity doesn’t stop just because someone broke the laws of man. In fact, in many ways, punishment without attempts for rehabilitation are nothing more than a failure of justice in the truest sense. It certainly helps that, as we meet them, Red and company are a mostly kind and supportive bunch. They hurt very few and find a kinship with Andy that, perhaps, had been unnoticeably vacant to them before Andy’s arrival. It’s not that they weren’t human before, it’s that Andy never seemed to let the prison overcome him psychologically and that carried over to others. Through Andy, Shawshank began to feel like a place that wasn’t so much home, but wasn’t hell either. At least, not for a while thanks to a few sips of cold brew, a few months of easy work during tax time, and even a bit of leniency from the guards. The issue of prison reform is a complicated one, but it seems, and perhaps this is an oversimplification, that if we start treating people like people, in prison or out, that there’s a greater chance of finding true freedom: a life where stresses are few, a life of your own making.
Because the copy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment sent is the physical edition, I made a point to put on the included Blu-ray after watching the 4K UHD disc. Though there is no remastered sound, the HDR inclusion makes the picture almost indistinguishable from what you’ve seen before. HDR, or High Dynamic Range, enables the picture to present in a more natural way as there is greater contrast and balance available to play with. It’s immediately noticeable when you compare two opening scenes on the 4K UHD disc to the Blu-ray: Andy’s day in court and Red’s first parole hearing. On the 4K UHD edition, in the flashback, Andy’s walk in the darkness is exactly that, where we can see Andy but he’s more shrouded by the night, aiding in the sense that he’s stalking his wife and her lover. On the Blu-ray, it’s far brighter, so that while we know it’s nighttime, there’s less of a feeling of threat as we can see Andy moving as plain as day. Similarly, when Red leaves his parole hearing and is walking around the prison grounds, the sky is a gorgeous pinkish-blue, indistinguishable from either early morning or late evening, but beautiful nonetheless. On the Blu-ray, the scene is blown out to the point that the sky is basically white. Later, upon Andy’s arrival, the ensuring collection of scenes showing his delousing, meeting with Hadley, and going to his cell, the difference between visual tones is incredible. With HDR, there’s an ominous feeling as there’s little light in each of the spaces we see, making it feel like the guards are putting their new prisoners in some place secret, tucked away where the rights of the people could be violated without interruption. Same with the walk into the cells; the scene is darker, the whole area a mix of shadows and light, but minimal as the only sources are the few lamps placed around the walking structure. On the Blu-ray, the scenes are so bright that there’s no terror or disquiet, only a somber feeling of inevitability. It’s certainly not ideal, but the feeling conveyed in the 4K HDR edition truly feels like the start of a nightmare compared to where the film ends. Granted, the HDR does have its downsides, like making the scene where Andy and company put tar on the roof not looking quite as oppressive in the heat, but it’s hard not to bask in the beauty of the surrounding green in contrast to their tar and metal surroundings or to delight in the beauty of the sky as they drink their beer when the jobs complete. There have been few HDR restorations which have made a purchase (or repurchase) worthy, but this one absolutely does it. Frankly, compared to the HDR edition, the Blu-ray looks, well, like something you’d see on TNT rather than a theater.
FYI: though the film is currently available on digital, the 4K UHD edition isn’t available until the release date, so I cannot speak on the streaming edition.
In most cases, it’s the relationship to the title that determines whether someone is going to pick up a remaster, restoration, anniversary edition, or what have you. Given how strongly people feel about Shawshank, the decision was likely made as to whether this was a Day One pick-up or not upon the announcement. With luck, given the above comparison, anyone concerned about how it looks can feel better knowing that it’s not just a release for the sake of release. There’s actually something here that inspires such a shift in tone as to change how we emotionally react to the scenes we know so well. It doesn’t matter how we think we remember the moments, how they look now, in this edition, will force a shift in memory that we’ll most likely be grateful for.
The Shawshank Redemption 4K UHD Previously Available Special Features:
- Commentary by Frank Darabont
- “Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back at The Shawshank Redemption”
- “Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature”
- “The SharkTank Redemption”
- 5xStills Galleries
- “Bogs Takes a Fall” Storyboards
- “New Fish Arrive” Storyboards
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital September 14th, 2021.
For more information on The Shawshank Redemption, head to the Warner Bros. Pictures archive.