Andy Dufresne is sent to prison for the murder of his wife and her extramarital lover. He is soon indoctrinated in a savage world of bargaining, machismo, corruption, and despair. But Andy is a silent unassailable force who through intellect and his child-like innocence gains favor with both the guards and the prisoners. He befriends Red, a longtime inmate, who berates hope but believes in Andy, and together they forge a bond that survives the decades.
Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Gil Bellows. Directed by Frank Darabont.
Graphic violence, quick visuals of a sex scene, language, implied prison rape, a vivid murder, and several suicides.
Why You Should See It:
Adapted from a short story by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best American films ever made. It did poorly at the box office and wasn’t well received, but picked up steam on VHS and is now a beloved, timeless classic. Only three years ago, it managed to fill 151 hours of basic cable television in a year, tying with Scarface and second to Mrs. Doubtfire, and still paying residuals to its principal actors and crew.
The movie works because we like Andy Dufresne. He’s perfectly imperfect. Some movies manipulate the audience into rooting for the main character by throwing all sorts of contrivances at him (see The Pursuit of Happiness or Patch Adams), but Andy must do his sincere best in a broken system that does not allow for hopeful men like him.
The movie has the common beats for this sort of story: a small victory, a large defeat, another small victory, another crippling defeat. The episodic nature gives it almost a biblical sense of time, each part a microcosm of these men’s lives punctuated by a continuing narrative of good versus evil. Andy is unflappable, persistent, almost maddening in his strive to better things around him. He succeeds at much of it. But just as it begins to feel too easy, hope is struck down. Andy is deflated over and over again. He is nearly strangled of his spirits. Of course, he is never quite destroyed.
Each tiny story in the movie, both hopeful and heartbreaking, all serve the same theme: that life is worth fighting for even when it beats you down, because that’s exactly the kind of life worth fighting for. Andy exemplifies that simple verse, “My strength is made perfect in weakness … for when I am weak, then I am strong.” He keeps hope amidst wretchedness and scrambles for the best in a hellish situation. Andy’s friend Red, played by Morgan Freeman (at the start and peak of his infamous narrator roles, making the movie even more Bible-y), a man who supplies his fellow prisoners with cigarettes and other contraband, is at odds with Andy’s wide-eyed intensity. He expresses our cynicism. “Hope is a dangerous thing,” Red says. “Hope can drive a man insane.” We agree with Red just a bit, mostly because Andy’s optimism is so foolish and green. But Red, despite himself, whispers the famous line, “Get busy living or get busy dying”—the smallest acknowledgement of choosing hope over resignation.
**Some spoilers ahead.**
In one of the best scenes of the movie, Andy plays music over a loudspeaker for the entire prison. The men are mesmerized: in their eyes you can see another lifetime before this whole mess. Red, in the way that only Morgan Freeman can speak, says the best line of many great lines of dialogue: “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.” The men in the prison, for a brief moment, are no longer prisoners, but lifted up by a glory beyond themselves. The scene is profoundly effective because it strikes the same chord in us, this unrequited longing to find undeniable beauty in a beaten down world, and we’re just as captured as the men in that dusty yard.
Andy is punished for his musical mischief, and when he finishes his sentence of solitary confinement — something all the prisoners fear — he remarks, “Easiest time I ever did.” At moments like these he has a bemused smile, like he got away with something wonderful. We cheer for him. At a cost to himself, he has set the prisoners free, if only for the length of one song.
Most of the prisoners plead they’re innocent, but they’re not. They’ve rationalized their crimes. The movie avoids the cliché of bad men with golden hearts; most of the men are hardened criminals that belong in Shawshank. The guards are just as violent and vindictive, hardly a shred of mercy in their wooden clubs. The movie avoids a fairytale environment where everyone wants to change for the better. Andy might be a chemical shock in the cesspool, a spark in the stifling dark, but not everyone welcomes him because they prefer to remain hopeless; they know themselves too well to rise above their trappings. This is most personified in a young wild prisoner named Tommy, who is reluctantly mentored by Andy to get his GED, and whose story outlines both the hope of good men and the depth of our miserable depravity. Just as Andy and Tommy make progress, they are crushed by stronger brute forces that snuff out any possibility of growth. The regime wins. It’s no wonder the prison remains in suffocating status quo. One look at our headlines today and we’re tempted to declare that evil has won and God is dead, because it’s easier.
Perhaps the most tragic chapter of the movie involves Brooks Hatlen, an elderly prisoner who owns a crow named Jake and is released after forty-nine years of imprisonment. Brooks doesn’t want to leave because he’s been “institutionalized” — he’s grown too close to the walls around him and can’t bear to function in the outside world. The theme here is probably too obvious and predictable, but it resonates powerfully, not least of all because of James Whitmore’s dignified performance, and because we ask ourselves the same sort of questions: If I leave a bad place, does it really leave me? Can I really redeem myself from what has happened behind me? What if I’m beyond repair? What if I’ve outgrown my usefulness? What if I’m terrified to move on? Brooks answers these questions with a definitive, gut-wrenching decision that is all the more heartbreaking because it’s so understandable.
While the prison itself is an enemy of its own, we meet Warden Norton, one of the movie villain greats. His suit, his haircut, his glasses, his speech: all of these are indicators that he is in for a glorious downfall. Think Satan in the final chapters of Revelation. I’ve never wanted so badly to reach into a television screen and slap a fictional villain. This is Batman’s Joker, Superman’s Luthor, Spiderman’s puberty. But the warden has all the power; Andy only has his brains and that indomitable heart. We keep cheering.
A film like Shawshank Redemption reminds us that in spite of evil’s terrible hold on humanity, we must fight back with every desperate breath and go down swinging. We discover there was nothing ever passive about Andy’s hope, that it was never ideal, romantic, pie-in-the-sky daydreams, but as Jesus once said, he was “as pure as a dove and as wise as a snake.” Andy, all along, for all his patience and gentleness, was hatching a marvelous, meticulous plan to take down the Goliath of the prison. So too, must we clench our fists in righteous anger and raise our voices for the wounded. We’d like to think that good guys win by default because they’re good, but we know from the news that this isn’t true. Evil often wins and gets away with it. But Andy shows that hope does win sometimes, and he gets away with it, too, and that’s the best sort of getaway there is — when justice prevails.
The story of Christian faith tells us that evil is fleeting, that it might win the day, but that justice will win forever. I know how the Bible ends: God wins, and so do His kids. But oh, the wait. And until then, we’re called to crawl by inches to restore what we can, where we can. We love Andy Dufresne because he’s the last passionate bastion of the good fight in all of us, bringing renewal around him at the cost of his own blood. He reminds us of the glory and beauty that we long for, that fighting for such hope is really worth it all. The final image of the film is the pay-off, the hope fulfilled, the home that we look forward to in our restlessness. It’s implied by the voiceover that this image might be a dream, but no matter — it is a beautiful dream, like a song dissolving our walls and letting us soar just so briefly.
I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.
— Red, The Shawshank Redemption