Cool Hand Luke — Review

Image retrieved from TMDb

There are lots of movies on my List of Shame. If it was released before the ‘60s, there’s a solid chance I haven’t seen it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it! So you can come here to read about my first experience with movies I feel like I should have probably watched by now. And this isn’t limited to older classics. If it’s a movie I’m interested in, but just happened to miss, Playing Catch-Up is the series where you can find my thoughts on it!

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies. That’s not all too surprising, since it’s one of the best films ever made. It’s a story about prisoners, but about their humanity. While the difficulty of life in prison is explored, it’s not like American History X or The Green Mile because of how it treats its characters just as guys who happen to be in prison. I didn’t really think I’d find another movie like this, but that was only until I recently watched Cool Hand Luke

After recently watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, I was itching to check out more of Paul Newman’s work. So with Cool Hand Luke leaving Netflix and its 8.1 rating on IMDb, I figured it was time to give it a try. Other than that, I didn’t know anything else about the film.

My immediate reaction after watching it was that it feels a whole lot like Shawshank, but from a very different era (obviously). Whereas Shawshank is about a prisoner meticulously planning his escape over years and years because of an abundance of hope, Cool Hand Luke is about a prisoner trying to escape every chance he can get. Shawshank ends on an incredibly hopeful note, while the ending of Cool Hand Luke (spoilers) is more bittersweet. 

Making this connection in my head is what enabled me to enjoy Cool Hand Luke for much of the film, since it largely followed similar beats to Shawshank. Even though it’s not about a giant prison, it’s still about inmates living their day-to-day lives in a prison. It also deals with similar themes of pushing back against authority, hope, and friendship. But it wasn’t until the end that it all came together for me so that Cool Hand Luke was able to stand on its own as a movie that I truly love. 

I really enjoy when this happens while watching a movie. Too often, I can get hung up on trying to see the point of each and every scene, which causes me to be too nearsighted. Then by the end, I’ll find it all pieced together and wish I had enjoyed the ride more. Because looking back, Cool Hand Luke was quite a ride. 

The film is a slow build-up of characterization and motivations. The time between Luke’s attempted escapes continues to become shorter and shorter as he gets more and more desperate. Even though he was arrested and convicted on legitimate grounds, you still empathize with him because of the grossly imbalanced power structure. All he did was cut the tops off of parking meters, which is of course against the law, but he was only sentenced to two years in prison. To have his punishment for such a minor crime be mental deterioration, including, but not limited to, being sent to “the box” simply because his mother died, is of course way over the top. 

As I’ve come to realize, it’s Newman’s performance that makes the film. In Butch and Sundance, The Kid, and Cool Hand Luke, he doesn’t play a good guy, per se. But Newman is all but dripping with charisma and charm that you can’t help but root for him. It’s compounded here with the terrible mistreatment. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention George Kennedy as Dragline. He plays one of my favorite kinds of characters in movies — the one who starts off as an antagonist growing to respect the protagonist and becoming his most trusted friend. He walks that line perfectly and it’s enjoyable to see their relationship blossom throughout the movie. 

I can’t wait to go back and watch Cool Hand Luke again. It has a lot of lessons that I’d love to dive into, all while sitting back and appreciating the filmmaking technique that went into making it. I think there’s also a lot to be said, or at least explored, when it comes to the eras that this and Shawshank were made. I’d be interested to learn about how much they are products of their time in their ultimate thematic messaging. Nevertheless, Cool Hand Luke was a great watch that I appreciate largely because of Paul Newman, and I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it many times in the future. 

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