This was the film that really put Roger Deakins on the map, earning him his first Oscar and ASC award nominations. To this day, his camerawork still holds up just as impressive as it ever was. Deakins shows that he knows when to pull out a swooping helicopter shot over the prison facilities. The type of shot that sucks us into the location where the majority of the story will take place, contrasting its outward grandeur with the injustice and turmoil that we’re about to see on the inside. But it’s not the bombastic, flashy camera movements that are his most impactful, it’s the subtlety he brings to the intimate moments. “Shawshank” is at it’s heart a love story between two men who grow to share an extraordinary friendship, brought together by the hardships they have to endure, the consistent rejections, the loss of friends, and from time to time the little victories.
Deakins’s camera brings so many appropriate accents to their story. It’s the moments when Andy and Red sit down outside for a talk and we almost imperceptibly push in as their conversation evolves, or when we’re introduced to Tommy starting as just a face among the crowd on the bus, but by the end of the dolly shot we know that he’ll have a part to play in this story. Let’s not forget the fresh perspective that he’s always searching for. You feel the story through his camera placement especially in emotionally strong moments like when he keeps the camera planted on Brooks’s feet as the table is kicked out from under him. It’s one of the most evocative moments in the film to see that Brooks’s feet aren’t hitting the ground with the table below them. And yes, part of that is because of the haunting performance from James Whitmore, but there’s more to the sensation that you get when you see that Brooks can’t go on anymore. That feeling in your stomach is the photography at work. It’s knowing what to show and what not to show. It’s being bold enough to trust that Brooks’s feet can sum up his character better than his face. It’s understanding his condition and dramatizing it in an image that does exactly what words cannot. When there’s no more narration left to frame the plight of the institutionalized freed man, all we have left to drive home the point is a shot or two that we can be sure to keep with us for a long while. The Coen brothers have claimed that Deakins is the best camera operator they’ve worked with, and he really pulls out all the stops here, providing one strong composition after another.
The look of the film, however, stays disappointingly rather stagnant. It’s just ok. The film is filled with stark, well-lit portraits of the characters often wallowing in the their unfortunate circumstances. But that seems to be it. The same soft, directional, warm lighting keeps coming back over and over again. It’s nice, but that’s all it is. It’s never breathtaking, it’s never heartbreaking, it’s always just nice. Here and there we get some relief with soft, almost shadowless exteriors and the one instance of lightning effects during the climax (funny how it’s always raining in movies when important stuff happens), but it’s not really much to grasp onto. And to be honest, this is why Deakins has never won the Oscar. He’s always doing so well, but he often gets lazy when it comes to lighting. He paints with broad strokes and it shows. He doesn’t get into the specificity of the character, the location, the moment. Even in a more recent film like “Prisoners” (his most recent Oscar nomination) it’s not hard to see that the lighting is taking a backseat. And while he may feel that it’s appropriate to the story, it’s just not that notable and it’s not doing much for the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, he has done some great work with lighting in films like “No Country for Old Men” and “Skyfall,” but many of the films he’s been nominated for lost the award and for a good reason.
But this is a blog post about “Shawshank,” a film in which the lighting fit the story, and the camera helped us to see deeper into the characters than we could imagine.