The Shawshank Redemption is proof positive that sometimes a film needs time to simmer in the zeitgeist before it’s appreciated as the work of art it is. The movie about two prisoners — hardened Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) and soft-spoken Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) — who find friendship while incarcerated flopped at the box office when it first came out in 1994. Thanks to a slew of awards nominations, as well as regular showings on networks like AMC and TNT, the film found new life and is now it’s widely considered by cinephiles to be one of the greatest movies ever made.
It’s the kind of movie that once you finish watching it, you want to start from the beginning and view it all over again. The story’s enough to make even the strongest person cry and, with its profound themes and first-class performances, it’s easy to see why the film has stood the test of time. However, if you’re in the mood to mix things up, there are plenty of other movies out there you can watch that have a similar tone, theme, or aesthetic. It may take some time to track all these films down to watch them, but we promise it will be worth it.
The Green Mile is another tale of life in prison from the mind of Stephen King
The name Stephen King typically calls to mind his works of horror, like The Shining and It, but he’s also been known to crank out works that focus on a very different type of despair: life in prison. While this may have begun in 1982 with the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which would later be adapted into 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, King approached the topic with another story over a decade later in The Green Mile.
While The Shawshank Redemption is fictional, it’s still completely grounded in reality; The Green Mile, however, introduces elements of the supernatural. This story focuses on prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), who normally doesn’t have a problem escorting death row inmates to their demise, but that all changes when he meets a man by the name of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). As Paul gets to know John, he begins to suspect that the gentle giant didn’t actually have anything to do with the murder of the two girls he was accused of killing. He also discovers that John has a supernatural gift of healing people with just the touch of his hands.
Audiences clearly did not sleep on this adaptation, as it was a major box office success upon release, grossing $286 million worldwide against a budget of $60 million (via Box Office Mojo). It was also nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it was directed by Frank Darabont, who also helmed The Shawshank Redemption, which, if it made you tear up, just wait until you see The Green Mile.
Escape from Alcatraz offers a tale of escaping prison, in the same vein as The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption may not be based on a true story, but it’s clearly inspired real-life events: two convicted killers in a New York prison carried out their very own prison break back in 2015 but were recaptured shortly thereafter (via ABC News). It’s the kind of story you can see being adapted into a movie one day, but if you want to see what’s arguably the most impressive prison escape of all time dramatized to film, then you need to watch Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood and Patrick McGoohan.
For the longest time, Alcatraz was considered an escape-proof prison, which made sense considering it was an impenetrable fortress out on the middle of an island. However, that reputation changed when a band of prisoners executed the prison escape to end all prison escapes, breaking out of their cells and making their way off the island in 1962. Their exploits were made into a book the following year and then the feature-length film in 1979.
The movie shows the great lengths to which the prisoners went, making papier-mâché dummies to look as though they were sleeping in their bunks, as well as a raft to sail away from the island. In real life, the prisoners were never found, their fates left unknown and forever immortalized in infamy for accomplishing the impossible. The men who pulled off the escape turned into living embodiments of Andy Dufresne.
Cool Hand Luke is another classic prison movie with a stellar performance from Paul Newman
The thing about prison movies like The Shawshank Redemption is that they inevitably turn into parables for the resilience of the human spirit. Mankind is meant to be free, and when that spirit is locked up, particularly under cruel or unjust circumstances, it makes for high drama. That’s precisely the case with the classic prison film Cool Hand Luke, which follows the title character, played by Paul Newman, as he serves a two-year sentence with a strict warden overseeing his every move. Despite these unbearable circumstances, Luke doesn’t allow life in prison to break him.
It’s a thought-provoking film, especially in the context of what it means to exert power over other human beings and what would happen if society at large rebelled against such notions. It’s fascinating to watch the film now and see how it’s influenced numerous other films that have come in its wake. If nothing else, you’ll get to hear the iconic line, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This is one classic movie that should absolutely be on your list of films to watch.
A Beautiful Mind offers a similar theme about the triumph of the human spirit
If you want to get away from films set behind bars, you can opt for something that shares The Shawshank Redemption’s theme of overcoming insurmountable odds. In that case, you may want to look toward the 2001 Academy Award winner for Best Picture — A Beautiful Mind — starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Ed Harris.
Instead of overcoming a physical obstacle, such as the prison in Shawshank Redemption, this film deals with internal barriers, namely mental illness. John Nash (Crowe) is a brilliant mathematician who’s accomplished a great deal in his line of work, but over time, he slowly begins developing paranoid schizophrenia and suffers from delusions as a result. Nash must decide whether what he experiences on a daily basis is reality or conjured from inside his unconscious brain. From this, he’s forced to go on a journey of self-discovery to regain control over his own mind. Like The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit through sheer force of determination and both demand your full attention.
Just Mercy offers a timely message about the modern criminal justice system
The prison industrial complex relies on a steady flow of individuals sentenced to incarceration, many of whom are given sentences of debatable justification. In fact, one of the dark secrets of the prison system is how many innocent people are encouraged to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit so that they can attain a lighter sentence in the event the case goes to trial. The 2019 film, Just Mercy, shines a light on these harmful systemic issues in one of the most poignant prison films to come out in recent memory.
The film tells the real-life story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who’s convicted of murder but insists upon his innocence. A young defense attorney by the name of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) takes his appeal case, fighting against all odds to make Walter a free man and help him escape the death penalty. The movie helps illustrate how systemic racism still permeates the prison system to this day. For this reason Warner Bros. decided to make the film temporarily free to rent over the summer of 2020 to help educate American audiences about the various injustices that have occurred over the years (via New York Post).
The Shawshank Redemption is great, whether you’re watching it for the first or twentieth time. However, if you feel like mixing things up, there’s no shortage of exceptional movies you can watch next that offer similar vibes and will have no trouble making you tear up.