09 August 2011

22. The Shawshank Redemption

Let's discuss information: when to reveal it, when to withhold it, which characters get to know what and when.

Like in "The Terminator", we follow a MC from the beginning who we aren't sure is actually a good guy. In that case, we see the parallel action of Arnold with that of Michael Biehn. They both arrive from the future and promptly fuck shit up. They are both relentlessly pursuing Sarah Connor. We see Arnold commit murders, and then we see both characters confront Connor at a club and open fire. We are surprised to find out that Biehn is actually protecting Connor from Arnold, not trying to kill her. He's the good guy.

Similarly, we open with our possibly bad guy Tim Robbins. We intercut between him drunk in his car with a pistol on a rainy night and his murder trail, where we discover that he's being accused of killing his wife and her lover. He denies it, but the judge finds him guilty, and furthermore, tells him (and us) that Robbins is a cold man, a cruel man.

Now, in the latter case, we discover that Beihn is actually a good guy through a switcheroo where we see him, through an action, save our real MC's life from the true villain of the story. And this happens at the end of the first act, the twist revealed early and used to defuse a growing sense of suspense about the fate of our true MC, moving the story in a new direction.

By contrast, we are lead to believe, by omission of facts, that there's still the possibility of Robbins having done this crime, along with a running joke that "everyone in prison is innocent." Although, through a series of actions (Robbins starting a library, getting beers for his new friends, helping a con get his HS degree), we doubt that he actually is innocent because he is by nature a good man, it isn't until late in the second act that we discover this is true, and Robbins should be free. And immediately his way out, a character with the truth, is sniped and Robbins will never get out. This fulfills the well-known "Worst Time In the Character's Life", "The Whiff of Death", the bad times that culminate act two, that spurn the confrontation and resurrection of the final act. And any ill feelings we might have about someone escaping prison are neutralized because we know for sure now that he should be free.

Another point about Andy's escape. We are led to believe, through Andy's despondent nature and his procuring of a rope, that he is going to kill himself. The build-up in the beginning of the third act is all based on the suspense of knowing certain pieces of information and concealing others: Andy is upset, knowing that he is innocent and yet his only hope for getting out has been killed, and he has a rope. He talks to Red, who is worried about him, thinks he will kill himself. Here, Andy could tell Red (and us) that he's getting out that night, but he does not. We could also be shown Andy escaping that night, or even be given an inkling -- a flash of him. Instead, the POV shifts to Red's character, who worries about Andy all night.

We cut to the next morning, and the holding back of information continues. Red comes out of his cell for the count, Andy does not. We (and Red) are instantly worried. Our worst fears have come true: this man who we've suffered with in prison, who we now know was innocent, has killed himself. Again, if they chose to do so, the filmmakers could reveal Andy right then, in his suit, free. But no.

Then the CO's come into the cell and we realize he is simply gone. The Warden comes in and we are no longer upset as an audience, we are simply confused. The POV has shifted to the Warden, and we feel what he feels. And then he throws the rock at the poster, and the tumult of information flows after that, and we see (and through Red's VO, hear) everything.

In this revealing of information, I'm reminded of "Reservoir Dogs", which doles out the facts of the robbery so slowly that the audience is always engaged. We start with a man shot in the gut, probably dying. Why? No idea. We get to the safe house. We get exposition from a third man who arrives. They discuss a robbery, they talk about how it went bad. We don't see that the shot man got it in the gut until much later, nor do we immediately realize that he's actually a cop. By the end of the movie, everyone (including the audience) knows everything, so the only thing to do at that point is start shooting.

Another, different form of revealing information is the way information is shown, not told. Two examples of this: we never actually see Andy get raped. We see the build-up to the attacks, and we are told about his attackers, and we are left to imagine what happens to him in those awful back rooms. Likewise, and even more cinematically, when the Warden's graft is exposed and the police come to get him, he decides to kill himself. He sticks a gun under his chin. We see the crash of the window behind him, a loud bang, then a gun drop to the floor. We never actually see the shot, just what happens before and afterward. Information here is presented strictly visually.

Another example of this is the posters that Andy uses. First we have Rita Hayworth, then Marilyn Monroe, then Raquel Welch. We span decades simple by seeing who the hottest actress is. Simple, effective.

A final example: Andy helps Tommy get his diploma, often in spite of Tommy. Tommy is sure he's failed, doesn't even want to turn the test in. Andy does it anyway. He is sent to the hole for an outburst at the Warden. The mail comes, and Red opens Tommy's letter about whether or not he passed. Instead of revealing the information then, even to Tommy himself, we cut to a CO, who gives Andy his meal and tells him that Tommy passed.

This shows not only that information in a movie can be doled out to create suspense, to surprise the audience by turning a potential villain into a hero, or can be done visually, but also the importance of who gets the priority, the privledge, of learning a piece of information first. Andy is our hero, Andy helped another character out, so Andy deserves to be the first to know that his efforts to help were not in vain.


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