Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption is a great prison movie. I spent many a middle-school sick day rewatching it on daytime television, enthralled by the idea that rich, white banker types like Tim Robbins's character Andy Dufresne might go to jail without actually committing a crime—even if he did pull off the creepy-spurned-husband-who-lurks-ominously-with-a-handgun act to perfection.New England prison rape, escape tunnels behind posters of beautiful midcentury actresses, brutal assassinations of potentially exonerating witnesses by guards— Shawshank seems scooped straight out of the darker parts of the American male id. The movie is pop art on the same level as anything in the country's best museums, a cultural signpost recognizable to virtually everyone. Which helps explain why pretty much every US news outlet, from tabloids to new media companies, has resorted to comparing the escape of two convicted murders from Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York earlier this month to the 1994 classic. Even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo got in on the action during an appearance on cable TV.
But Richard Matt and David Sweat—the two escapees—are nothing like Dufresne. Plenty of irked journalists have already taken to chastising their colleagues for the lazy comparison—Robbins himself told Conan O'Brien last week, "That was a movie, this is real life," and also that, "Andy was innocent"—but the onslaught continues. On Tuesday, the New York Post ran the classy headline "Shaw Skank Sex Triangle" in reference to Joyce Mitchell, the 51-year-old civilian employee at the prison who allegedly helped the men escape after getting romantically involved with them.With Dufresne's reputation in danger of being sullied by this sordid affair, it's important to take a minute and lay down a very clear marker: The New York prison escape saga is nothing like The Shawshank Redemption.
This might seem like a trivial detail, but part of what made the movie inspiring was that we were rooting for Dufresne, who we knew—or at least were pretty sure we knew—hadn't actually done the deed (killing his wife and her lover) that landed him in the can.Sweat and Matt, meanwhile, almost certainly did commit gruesome murders. Sweat and a pal reportedly shot a deputy sheriff unlucky enough to find them in the middle of a heist, and Matt was convicted for killing a 76-year-old former employer in cold blood.
DAVID SWEAT AND RICHARD MATT ARE ACTUAL, BRUTAL KILLERS
After he escaped, Dufresne mailed a bunch of documents incriminating his prison's warden to a local newspaper, a hell of a gesture to the guys he left behind.Sweat and Matt, on the other hand, left this note in their wake:
THEY ALSO SEEM PRETTY RACIST
The most lurid detail in this whole story is the fact that Matt has a large penis, according to a retired detective quoted in the Post. I simply do not recall this being a part of Shawshank.
ALSO, DUFRESNE DIDN'T SEDUCE A PRISON EMPLOYEE WITH HIS HUGE DICK IN ORDER TO ESCAPE, OR MAYBE THAT WAS IN THE STEPHEN KING BOOK?
Dufresne and his pal Red, played by Morgan Freeman, just wanted to get outside the prison walls and go to Mexico. It was very nice. Sweat and Matt and Mitchell reportedly had a plan—at least until she apparently got cold feet—to kill the prison worker's husband, a rather less uplifting goal.
THE MOVIE DIDN'T INVOLVE AN ABANDONED PLOT TO MURDER ANYONE AFTER GETTING OUT OF PRISON
Shawshank is fun in part because the movie ends with Dufresne and Red chilling on a beach in Mexico, their material needs ostensibly met for the foreseeable future thanks to some accounting tricks the former banker pulled on his sadist of a warden. While we don't know exactly what kind of dough Sweat and Matt are carrying around, it is probably not a small fortune.
THE ESCAPEES DON'T HAVE A TON OF CASH TO RETIRE ON
If someone makes a movie out of Sweat and Matt's capers, it's probably not going to have the word "redemption" in it. The two men had rough upbringings, they've caused serious trouble and been in and out of prison their whole lives, and Matt is thought to have cut apart the body of that 76-year-old victim with a hacksaw. There aren't many ways their stories can end: They'll be caught and go back to prison, they'll be caught and killed by the cops, or they'll live out the rest of their days as fugitives—haunted and hunted and probably on the fringes of society.That's not a feel-good story.By all means, be terrified of these men and their capacity to kill you. Read the bizarre reports of their exploits. Express wonderment at their ability to crawl through a pipe and out of a manhole into the New York wilderness, eluding hundreds of cops and dogs and more.But please do not, under any circumstances, liken these guys to America's Favorite Prison Escapee. It's an unjust comparison—and it trivializes the very real problem of wrongful conviction to boot.Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.