Here’s a comfort movie if there ever was one. We all know this movie pretty much by heart after the many thousands of times its been rerun on TNT. It tops just about every greatest film ever made list. I don’t think The Shawshank Redemption is the number one movie of all time. But it sure as hell is a great movie.
Ultimately, this film is about a message of hope, and freeing ourselves from our own personal prisons. In the film it might be taken in the most literal sense as the main characters are physically trapped in one place. But for a character like Red (Morgan Freeman), it goes much deeper. He may be the most self reflective about it apart from Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins), as he knows the dark side of becoming institutionalized. As he remarks when Brooks is released from Shawshank after serving 50 years (Brooks is released only to find all his friends and loved ones dead and gone. He doesn’t know how to live in the a world that’s completely changed for him, and he becomes a man with no purpose. So he hangs himself) Red later puts it: “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em. Then you get used to ’em. After awhile it grows so you come to depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts anyway.” Red’s personal prison keeps him a little more grounded in the reality of his own situation, which is why Andy needs him to keep himself focused. But Red is also challenged by Andy. When Andy tells the other prisoners about the beauty of music, and how it can allow you to access a place deeper within that no prison guard can ever get to, he is talking about that sense of hope. Red fires back that hope is a dangerous thing in prison. It can lead to disillusionment.
RED: Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. It can drive a man insane. It’s got no place on the inside. You’d better get used to that idea.
ANDY: Like Brooks did?
Red is haunted by his past, a mistake he made in his youth that cost him by the end of the film 40 years of his life. But for all the mistakes he’s made, its Andy who starts giving Red a piece of that hope that there is something more to his life outside those prison walls. My favorite scene in the whole film is the “Suds on the Roof Sequence”, where Andy offers Captain Hadley to do paperwork to keep a $35,000 inheritance in exchange for giving three beers a piece to his prison mates he works with on the roof. In that scene, the men get to take a break in the sun with a bottle of beer…a taste of the freedom they once had. Its the scene that solidifies Reds friendship with Andy. But its a more important scene for Red as he experiences a momentary release from the bonds of his personal prison.
While much of this film follows Andy, this is really Red’s story as its told from his point of view. There is some mystery behind Andy, but he is driven through his own ambitions. Before he went to prison, he was a young vice president at a prestigious bank. So if there’s anything from his life experience he’s learned, its how to spot an opportunity, and he’s gained some personal wisdom from that. He is still a flawed person, and he is challenged severely. When he first arrives in prison, his journey is that of a myth. There’s his trial, his initiation into prison as he’s showered and forced to walk naked to his cel. For the first two years in prison he is threatened, beaten, and sometimes raped by Bogs and the Sisters. Andy’s old self dies off, and in the beginning Shawshank Prison almost nearly destroys him. The harshest lesson Andy is forced to learn is that everything that happened to him in the past doesn’t matter now. Red puts it bluntly, “Everyone’s innocent in here. Didn’t you know that?” This mistake comes back to haunt him later in the film where he tries to get the Warden to use Tommy’s testimony for a new trial. Not only does this do Andy no good, it leads to the harshest backlash the Warden throws at him. The past it turns out in Shawshank doesn’t matter.
While Red and Andy aren’t quite on the same level when they first meet, its Red who helps Andy survive and still hold on to his humanity. Going back to the beer scene, one thing I noticed that was interesting is that the moment occurs right before the scene where Andy tries to carve his name in his cel wall, the scene we later discover a chunk of the wall breaks off and Andy starts formulating his 20 year plan for escape. At this point in the film there is no motivation behind Andy helping Hadley and gaining favor with the other prisoners. It’s a sincere moment. He doesn’t know that when Hadley discovers he’s good with numbers that it would lead him do favors for the guards, as well as becoming the Warden’s personal accountant and more. It’s Andy’s own intuition for seeking out opportunities, even when he doesn’t know where they’re going to lead, and taking risks by putting himself out there that really define his character, and soon makes him an inspiration for Red. Andy never allows Shawshank Prison to change who he is. He winds up changing the whole prison. In the end, its Red who changes the most and finds freedom, because Andy gives him hope. By the end of the film, you can also say that Andy not only gives him hope, but saves him from Brook’s fate by inviting him to Zihuatanejo. Director Frank Darabont talked about the film as a platonic love story between these two men.
Another one of my favorite scenes in the film is the scene after Andy has been in “the hole” for two months. He meets with Red, and while Red thinks Andy is contemplating suicide, Andy is really trying to hint to Red to come with him after he escapes. But he can’t tell Red he’s escaping. And Red’s own fears come into light again, when Andy talks about wanting to live in a far off place, and Red believes Andy is becoming delusional. Andy decides in that moment he’s going to escape…but Red tries to stop him…and Andy tells him exactly what he needs to hear with the now famous line, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” That night Red can not only feel the guilt, but the fear that his friend may end his life.
But we wouldn’t love this movie at all without the prime antagonists who challenge Andy and do everything in their power to strip him of all hope and humility. The first is Bogs, but once he’s defeated, it moves on to an even bigger threat: Warden Norton and Captain Hadley. Norton is definitely up there as one of the great screen villains, cloying and manipulative, and at the very end, sadistic. His murder of Tommy cements into the audience that this is a very dark man, who will do almost everything in his power to service himself. But this is not the first time he’s done it. In a more subtle way, he also murdered Brooks, by unsympathetically kicking him out into the streets with no hope to his name. Captain Hadley kills without conscience to anyone who crosses him. Of course its a prison out in the middle of nowhere. No one is going ask questions. They can make up any story they want. The Warden doesn’t seem like it at first, but he’s a monster from the get go, as he shows no remorse over killing Tommy to keep control over Andy and put him in his place, with this and forcing Andy to spend two months in a pitch black room. We see as part of his cover is his own religious piety. Ironically enough, its the villain that probably delivers the films most important and life affirming message to Andy: “Salvation lies within.” It’s the one thing that keeps Andy alive, and Andy is certain to thank Norton for the message after he’s escaped.
It is most definitely a mythological journey we take through this prison. There’s a lot going on in this movie, and many people have written about it and the reasons why its successful. I think one of the big reasons it works is the classical approach to filmmaking that Darabont demonstrates here. There is almost no shred of sympathy for the villains. The way the story is constructed the Warden does have some of our sympathy at first, but that turns out to be a false front when we find out how truly dark and corrupt he really is….and we also realize that’s the way he’s always been. I watched an interview with Clancy Brown, who played Captain Hadley, which was kind of interesting. He had a conversation with Bob Gunton who played Warden Norton and told him he found it difficult getting into Hadley’s character because there was almost no sympathy to him. Gunton’s response was that this film was a memory play. Everything is from Red’s point of view. The people Red was closest to he sees with more affection and sympathy. The prison system, the guards and the Warden are seen as harsh brutal captors. This explanation is great because it gives the excuse the movie needs to play up the one sidedness of the villains where modern audiences would usually call for more emotional depth in their antagonists, even if they’re the scourge of the Earth. But while the characters are one sided, Darabont uses tactics to make us feel more the Warden and Hadley. But our sympathy turns out to be our own disillusionment about the characters, which is why I think it works here. It’s a call back to the early days of cinema, where the villains were truly villains with almost no redeeming qualities. The actors of course while find ways to access sympathy for them in their own ways so they can make it believable when they play the part. But there are some examples like Shawshank where we don’t always need sympathy for the villain to make it work, and here, any sympathy we did have for them is wholly manufactured.
The other nod to classical cinema with this film is its use of terrific character actors. There is a little of that larger than life quality to the acting that brings this movie to another level. I always loved William Sadler’s Heywood, a guy who starts off as an instigator, but he feels the guilt when he gets the fat prisoner beaten by Hadley in the beginning of the film. He becomes our access for Andy into the group of friends he makes in prison. Heywood resists Andy at first, but he comes around and winds up becoming his friend. Floyd is another enjoyable character, who reacts half the time to Heywoods stupidity. The supporting characters all have their moments in the film.
Shawshank Redemption is definitely one of my all time favorite movies. Like I said, I don’t like to consider it the greatest movie ever made. But it’s kind of like Star Wars for the same reasons that movie is so popular, and its because of the structure of mythogical storytelling and heightened reality. Instinctively we all recognize the trials the character faces, the metaphor for Andy carving away at the tunnel in his cel, a little bit every night, and like Red says, “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really. Pressure and time. That and a big goddamn poster.” We carve away little by little as we make our way to our final journey.
I love Frank Darabont not just because he’s a great filmmaker, but he’s also a classic movie buff, and I think everything he ever learned from those films almost always makes their way into his movies. There is a great truth about life in this film that we can all identify with. Because as Andy says to Red in his letter at the end of the film:
“Remember Red, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”