One of the big pop-culture narratives of 1994 was a manufactured rivalry between two very different cinematic sensations. In one corner was Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis’ baby boomer roller coaster ride through U.S. history. In the other was Pulp Fiction, a hyper-violent, video-store pastiche from the young genre junkie Quentin Tarantino. Gump was golden oldies, a warm hug, a box of chocolates. Pulp was trash rock, a punch in the face, a shot of adrenaline to the heart. To hear most contemporary entertainment journalists tell it, which of these critical and commercial hits one preferred wasn’t just a matter of taste—it was a vote cast for cinema’s future. And so they became intrinsically linked, the yin and yang of water-cooler film debate, their dichotomy discussed so frequently that it inspired at least one pretty clever late-night comedy sketch. The films’ battle royal (with cheese) ended the subsequent March, when Gump clobbered Pulp at the Academy Awards. But people still discuss the two in relation to each other, as the salty and sweet side of an important year for the movies.
The Gump/Pulp divide is a fun window into 1994, and an easy way to discuss some of the industry’s developing tensions—studio vs. indie, Hollywood insider vs. gatecrashing outsider, sincerity vs. sarcasm. But the chasm between them wasn’t quite as wide as some made out: Both films, after all, are long, fast-paced, and star-powered dramedies that lean heavily on irony and their pop soundtracks. For a much more extreme split—and a truly bipolar vision of that year in film—one has to look to a shadow conflict, a comparison between two acclaimed movies no one in their right mind would think to pair.
Imagine, for the perverse pleasure of it, the double feature some unsuspecting moviegoer could have made out of The Shawshank Redemption and Natural Born Killers. The tonal whiplash might have been physically painful. Released within a couple months of each other, the two films don’t seem to belong to the same medium, let alone the same era. One of the most popular movies ever made, Shawshank is a sentimental period piece about friendship in captivity, the power of the human spirit, and the warm, simple pleasures of Morgan Freeman’s sagely narration. NBK, by contrast, is a toxically cynical screed against American bloodlust, populated exclusively by cartoon psychopaths. Shawshank takes its cues from old Hollywood melodramas, whereas NBK is hyper-modern, drawing influence from the rapid-fire sensory assault of music videos. One is a tribute to the importance of hope, the other says there is no hope for anyone ever again—except, perhaps, for those who adopt an anarchic disregard for everything. To tweak a line from Gump, the two films go together like peas and arsenic.
So why compare them at all? Wouldn’t an essay on the disparity between, say, The Lion King and The Professional make as much—or, more pointedly, as little—sense? The truth, however wonky it may seem, is that The Shawshank Redemption and Natural Born Killers share a couple of strong thematic through-lines, enough that they play like two very different sides of the same coin. At heart, they are anti-authority parables, pitting mythic outsiders—one saintly, the other two unholy—against powerful and corrupt men. Hell, the two movies end almost identically, with their protagonists busting out of prison to bask in the daylight glow of freedom and companionship. Seriously, watch the endings again, and note how bizarrely similar they are, one playing like some warped, bitterly ironic parody of the other.
Both of these cinematic milestones sprang from the imagination of a famous writer, though neither is often thought of as an essential work of its author. In the case of Shawshank, the mastermind was horror maestro Stephen King, whose novella “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption”—from the excellent collection Different Seasons—was faithfully translated to the screen by writer-director Frank Darabont. Because of King’s reputation as a purveyor of bestselling pulp, the novelist’s name was largely omitted in the advertisements for Shawshank, which was courting a more prestigious audience—the kind who, by the studio’s logic, might turn up its nose at a story “from the author of The Shining and Cujo.” (King’s byline might actually have helped boost Shawshank’s initially dismal box office.) On the other end of the spectrum is Natural Born Killers, whose basic plot—two murderous, modern-day Bonnie and Clyde types become media sensations—was conceived by Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino. But director Oliver Stone made enough revisions, filtering the violent narrative through his broad satirical lens, to largely erase QT’s auteuristic mark. By the filmmaker’s own admission, NBK is a Stone joint through and through.
These are, at their core, guy’s guy romances, marrying elements of “masculine” genre cinema—prison movies especially—to separate tales of soul mates finding each other. The love story in Shawshank is a platonic one, pairing mysterious new inmate Andy (Tim Robbins) with veteran jailbird Red (Morgan Freeman). The film is careful not to even remotely imply a sexual attraction—the only gay characters on-screen are the leering, rapist Sisters—but the Andy and Red story is a romance, make no mistake. More obviously, so is the on-the-lam adventure of NBK’s Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), whose cross-country rampage is treated as an expression of their mutual rejection of social values. These films hook their hypothetical audiences in different ways: If Shawshank’s enduring appeal lies at least partially in locating the soft center of a hard environment—come for the macho big-house drama, stay for the tender friendship—then NBK does something close to the opposite, spiking a familiar tale of amour fou with lots of nihilistic violence. Beyond all that, though, don’t both movies steep their central relationships in an outlaw spirit, a sense of us-against-the-world camaraderie? Aren’t they both really just about escape?
Naturally, neither audiences nor critics saw much kinship between Shawshank and NBK, which inspired wildly different responses and were likely mentioned together only in awards prediction pieces. (The former was nominated for seven Oscars, but won none of them; the latter scored no nominations, but won the hearts of satire-immune teenagers everywhere.) But now, the story of Shawshank’s incredible rise through the ranks of the cinematic canon—and to the top of the IMDB chart, where it’s more or less remained since the late ’90s—has been thoroughly documented, with numerous articles noting how home video and frequent airings on TNT helped turn an awards-season also-ran into one of the most beloved movies of all time. Shawshank started small, its critical hosannas modest and its box-office returns disastrous. NBK, on the other hand, was an instant sensation—a divisive lightning rod of controversy that drew surprisingly big bucks, landed high on many year-end top 10 lists, and graced the cover of several magazines. It was a phenomenon, one that must have looked in 1994 like a film built to withstand the test of time. Certainly, few could have guessed that a folksy, politely received fable of bonding behind bars would eventually eclipse it in the cultural conversation.
Twenty years later, though, NBK’s edge has dulled. If anything, it now seems a footnote on what turned out to be a pretty significant year for movies—one that gave us not just Pulp and Gump, but also Hoop Dreams and Ed Wood and Red and Heavenly Creatures and True Lies and any number of international festival favorites. Why has Stone’s hysterical new-media critique lost its luster, or at least the attention it so blatantly courted? Partially, it seems a case of the shock wearing off. While NBK’s bloodshed doesn’t exactly look tame by today’s standards, it does look more commonplace. The film was made to appall, to shotgun its unsubtle points about the American spirit into audience’s brains. But provocations have a way of aging poorly, their value diminishing as sensitivities evolve.
That’s not to say that the problems Stone bombastically identifies here are no longer problems. (One could argue that TV audiences are even more hooked on violence than they were in the ’90s.) It’s the manner in which NBK communicates its outrage that looks so dated. In its deliberate appropriation of commercial imagery (like the Coca-Cola polar bears) and MTV editing rhythms, the movie was designed to feel fundamentally current—a transmission from the cultural frontlines of the then and there. But that very of-the-moment quality, that distinctly 1994 attitude, now makes it look like a film only of its era. It was not made to last. Its relevance passed like an expiration date.
Shawshank, on the other, is so doggedly old-fashioned in its appeal that it contains scarcely a single element, beyond perhaps the appearance of its cast and its general visual texture, that places it in 1994. What once made the film appear stodgy, especially compared to trendier hits like Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, now works like a freshness seal. No one thinks, stumbling upon the film on cable, that they’ve lifted the lid off a time capsule and breathed the musty air of some ancient relic. They just get pulled into the narrative. And that sense of discovery, unhindered by the distracting presence of era-specific signifiers, helps explain how it continues to accrue new fans every year.
Besides, it’s just a better movie. Natural Born Killers may be more radical and “scathing” in its relentless barrage of sounds and images, but it’s also a work of high hypocrisy—a reprimand from a prime offender, Stone’s attempt to indulge his appetite for destruction and then call it ours. What business does the man who wrote Scarface have in lecturing all of us about our bloodlust? Shawshank, with its easily digested morals and rose-colored vision of prison culture, has no higher ambition than to tell a good yarn. And it succeeds in that goal so well that people have never stopped finding it and loving it and passing it on to others. Were I asked to pick the most quintessentially 1994 movie, I’d single out Natural Born Killers in a heartbeat; it’s the most vivid portrait of what it was like to mainline pop-culture that year. But it never struck a chord like Shawshank, whose delayed popularity is proof that timelessness is a shrewder aim than timeliness.