The Shawshank Redemption: On Life in Prison and Life in General

Warning: Spoilers Ahead.

Thanks to AMC, which would be the best movie station on TV if not for all the f—ing bleeps, “The Shawshank Redemption” has been playing nearly every week this summer. Despite being the banner image of this blog for well over a year, “The Shawshank Redemption” has not gotten its moment in the sun here. It’s time for that to change.
“The Shawshank Redemption” has earned its place among cinema’s finest. That’s a huge feat for a movie that was critically and commercially shunned upon initial release. Today, it is famously ranked as the greatest movie of all time on IMDB’s Top 250; just one notch below “The Godfather.” The legacy of “Shawshank” has increased over the years. That is in large part because of its emotional impact. This is one of the few movies that could make a grown man cry. You might get teary eyed from Brooks’s final monologue. Or, perhaps it will hit you after that last shot, as the gentle Pacific and the endless stretch of beach frames two friends reuniting for the first time, finally free. That’s the one that always gets me.
Much of the film’s emotion comes from Frank Darabont’s incredibly human direction. He lives by the rule that what can’t be seen is more powerful than everything we do see. During the aforementioned scene in which Brooks says his final goodbye to the world, the camera makes his suicide all the more devastating. We never actually see him hang himself, but instead we see the pieces of wood coming off the wall as he writes “Brooks is Here,” and finally we see his the table fall from under him as his feet shake, and then remain in a still, and eerily peaceful, state.
“Shawshank” is a film that carries strong ethos to match its pathos. Its story of a corrupt prison is as much about a corrupt prison as it is about corrupt society as a whole, and how the human mind and soul fit in.
Before we get into that, let’s start from the beginning. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker sentenced to life in prison after his adulterous wife is found dead, and he is found guilty of the murder., despite his claim of innocence. Dufresne is a quiet man, and this makes people misinterpret him as a cold man with no remorse. Really, his silence hides an intelligence far beyond most others. Andy is sent to the corrupt Shawshank Prison, where forms a friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman) during his two decade imprisonment. Red tells Andy that he is “the only guilty man in Shawshank.”
It seems customary at this point that every film about a life of imprisonment must have a lead character who doesn’t belong. In “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” R.P. (Jack Nicholson) wasn’t actually insane (like most of the other men at the hospital). And while Luke from “Cool Hand Luke” actually did commit a crime, he has a spirit too big for the hellish southern prison he’s been placed in. Perhaps it is through all of these eccentric characters that we see that these institutions offer punishment, but no rehabilitation, for any of the people that are sent to them.
In “Shawshank,” prison is more than a dehumanizing place. It is an industry, and a world of its own. In this industry though, cigarettes are used as currency.
It makes sense that a place as isolated as prison would become a world of its own. What is so interesting about “Shawshank” is that it mirrors the creation of society. The men are supposed to enter from the real world with something of a blank slate, as they are expected to eventually feel guilt and want to change as a result of their prison sentences. There are many ways to “save” men. The Warden (Bob Gunton) believes salvation is found through Jesus Christ. Every man who wants to follow this path seems to do it just as a cover up for wrongdoing. Then, there is Andy’s way of thinking. During the scene in which he plays Mozart over the loud speaker, he is exposing the deprived prisoners to culture. None of the prisoners understand what the woman is saying in the song, but they know that it is moving. There is a sort of universal language that runs through every work of art, a kind of language that those obsessed with power are too blind to understand. Andy is not a machine, he is a record player: he has the cheerful, care-free flow of great music constantly flowing through him.
In these respects, “Shawshank” is about the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. Darabount uses this idea to give, well, sympathy to some people who don’t really deserve it. The scene in which Bogs (Mark Rolston), Andy’s tormentor, gets what is coming to him ends up being more painful than cathartic. That is because Bogs is literally dragged into his own cell by the ruthless Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown). Even if someone is bad, once they become helpless, you immediately feel for them. This is a case of “A Clockwork Orange” Syndrome: no fight is fair if both sides cannot stand up for themselves. It is someone’s right to choose whether they want to defend themselves. Once that right is taken away, that man ceases to truly live.
And that is what the redemption of “The Shawshank Redemption” truly is: gaining freedom. It is not just the freedom to return to the outside world. The outside world is a place that “got itself in a big damn hurry.” It is about achieving inner freedom: the freedom to explore, learn, and make decisions for oneself.
“The Shawshank Redemption” is many more things that a few more viewings might help me find. It uses religion as a way to raise its hero into savior status, all while showing the ways that religion can be linked to the triumph of evil. It is a brilliant choice of letting Red, rather than Andy, narrate the story. This is not just because Morgan Freeman is the only person who could emulate what God would probably sound like, but because it adds a narrative complexity. Andy is a mystery. So is his overall escape mission. If the film were told from Andy’s perspective, the mystery would be gone. Andy also doesn’t quite seem to understand why he is so unique. Only an outsider could explain why. Another brilliant narrative technique? The fact that the clothing worn by three different women (Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch) marks the passage of time in the film.
I don’t take much credence in the IMDB Top 250, but the fact that “The Shawshank Redemption” tops the list gives me some faith in it. Even if it isn’t the greatest film of all time, this top spot shows that the next generation that will control the movies, and the common opinion of movies, actually has some good taste. Perhaps, “The Shawshank Redemption” will one day be considered as timeless as “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” I don’t think anyone would really mind.