PRISON movies come in many shapes and sizes. At one end of the spectrum are Hollywood potboilers ranging from the classic ``20,000 Years in Sing-Sing'' to the trashy ``Tango & Cash'' and the witty ``Escape From Alcatraz.'' At the opposite end are metaphorical films using imprisonment to explore issues of guilt, salvation, and freedom.
``The Shawshank Redemption,'' starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, leans toward the second group - which is surprising, since it's a high-profile Hollywood release with a story based on a Stephen King novella.
The picture has moments of King-style sensationalism, to be sure, and one subplot (about a gang of homosexual predators) seems gratuitous. Much of the time, though, the filmmakers find more interesting things to focus on than the claustrophobic brutality of most prison movies; and there's no quarreling with their message that hope, trust, and friendship are among the most powerful of human values.
The film takes its title from Shawshank State Prison, a maximum-security jail run by a Bible-quoting warden who's as corrupt as he is sanctimonious. The story begins when a banker named Andy arrives after being convicted of a double murder.
He maintains his innocence, but nobody cares about him or his protestations. Slowly accepting the prison and its routines, he finds consolation in small pleasures - an interest in geology, a good memory for music - and starts to make friends.
Chief among his new acquaintances is Red, a longtime con with a capitalistic flair for providing items his fellow prisoners want. Drawn together by their nose for business, their ironic outlook on life, and their basic sense of decency, Andy and Red become close companions, wending their way together toward the story's surprising and upbeat climax.
Written and directed by Frank Darabont, whose previous credits lie mostly in TV and horror movies, ``The Shawshank Redemption'' has a clever plot, conveyed through a well-crafted screenplay that loses momentum only when twists and turns stretch it about 30 minutes too long. What gives the picture most of its zest and poignancy, however, is the excellence of its lead performances.
AS the uptight banker, Robbins does some of his subtlest acting to date. As his hardened but resilient friend, Freeman is simply miraculous, giving the role so much depth, dignity, and good humor that you feel you've known this man forever. It's the kind of deeply felt performance that Freeman does better than anyone else, and if reward matches achievement, he should win about a dozen Oscars for it.
Also central to the movie's success is superb camera work by Roger Deakins. His eye for color, composition, and movement has never been sharper, and his use of aerial photography is breathtaking. Other contributors include production designer Terence Marsh, costume designer Elizabeth McBride, film editor Richard Francis-Bruce, and composer Thomas Newman. The solid supporting cast includes Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown, William Sadler, and the marvelous James Whitmore in a brief but memorable appearance as the oldest con in the joint.
* Rated * for sex, vulgar language, and violence.