There are films that seep into the public consciousness so deeply that we begin to take them for granted, and their greatness is assumed but no longer deeply thought about. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those films.
Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
What is it that makes Shawshank so great? Is it the bi-weekly airings on AMC? Is it because it’s everyone’s dad’s favorite movie, and so it’s great because everyone says it’s great? Why is it the highest-rated film on the Internet Movie Database, tied with The Godfather? Good grief, that’s basically saying it’s the best film ever made, but that can’t possibly be true. So what we’re actually talking about is the simple, sometimes overlooked factor of pure, raw, emotional impact.
Stephen King adaptations have rarely been successful, but Frank Darabont’s film proves to be the exception. Darabont adapted the screenplay from King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” which had the advantage of being a simpler, human story without all the “horror feature” baggage of King’s other works. Because of its straightforward nature and structure, Darabont’s screenplay captures and even enhances the spirit and themes of the novella.
Shawshank is one of those rare films that appears genetically engineered to make grown men cry, but its catharsis is entirely earned. It takes the classic literary trope of “The Wronged Man” and deepens it, makes it resonate in a completely new way. The fact that it’s a period film, set during the 1940s, adds to the magic. It takes what could be a boilerplate prison tale and turns into something more: an inspirational fable, an allegory, the stuff of myth.
The film boasts all-time performances from its two leads. Tim Robbins radiates decency and grace as Andy Dufresne, an innocent man convicted of murdering his wife; Morgan Freeman has his most famous role (and template for the dozens of narrator-types he’d play in the future) as Red, a lifer who’s become something of a professional scrounger, embittered to being “institutionalized” and not really interested in making new friends. But Andy, an accountant in his previous life, turns an overheard conversation to his advantage and earns beers for his work crew when he tells Chief Guard Hadley (Clancy Brown, oozing menace) how he can avoid taxes on an inheritance.
From then on, having earned one moment of relaxation for Red and his friends, Andy is one of the group. He must find ways to occupy his time and his active mind, so he polishes stones; he helps the guards (and the Warden) with their taxes; he refurbishes the prison library. We meet the other residents of Shawshank: Red’s friends, the evil “Sisters” led by inmate Boggs, the old librarian Brooks, and more, all overseen by the pious Warden (Bob Gunton). Months and then years begin to slide by without many real changes, and so for this stretch of the film it becomes a meditation on the prisons we build for ourselves, and whether one can be “free” without really being free.
What does freedom mean, anyway? Brooks earns his “freedom” by qualifying for parole, but finds himself completely unprepared to deal with life on the outside. His options are limited because of his status and age, and the life that he’d built for himself as the prison librarian (and the friends he made) is gone forever. He’s out of Shawshank, but he feels more trapped by his surroundings than ever, so he hangs himself in his room. It’s heartbreaking, not least because we fear this fate for Red and eventually for Andy.
Shawshank, ultimately, is a film about hope. Red tells Andy that “hope is a dangerous thing,” and that it can “drive a man insane,” but Andy refuses to listen. His blind optimism seems to pay off with the arrival of Tommy, a side-burned hotshot Andy helps to learn how to read and pass his GED, an uplifting sequence signifying how Andy can still find fulfillment by being a light for others. His day-to-day existence consists of library work, teaching, accounting (including laundering the Warden’s money), and writing letters to the state asking for more money for books–all things that could on their own be considered “normal.” But Andy is still imprisoned, and unjustly at that–so he never gives up on seeing the outside world again, one way or another.
When Tommy reveals that a former cellmate at his previous institution admitted to killing Andy’s wife, the gears begin to set in motion for the story’s climax. The Warden, clean on the outside but black within, would rather have Tommy killed in an “escape attempt” than have his testimony lead to Andy’s release, as it would implicate the Warden for his financial misdeeds. It’s the lowest moment in the entire film, a cruel twist of the knife when the audience is desperate for justice to finally be done. Tommy’s death appears, to Red and the others, to break Andy, but all it does is accelerate the plan Andy already had in place. He doesn’t just have hope–he backs it up with deeds.
Andy’s eventual escape is thrilling, the highest emotional high in a film full of them. He’d been chipping away at his cell wall for months–years?–until he had made a hole large enough, and then the crawl through 500 yards of raw sewage to the outside is the stuff of nightmares. But he emerges, free, greeted by a cleansing rain as if from God Himself. The film’s most iconic image is of Andy with his arms outstretched to the sky, vindicated in his hope, overcome with joy.
If the film ended there, that would be enough. Andy is triumphant, the Warden and Hadley face their day of judgement, and we get our “happy ending.” But King and Darabont really bring on the waterworks with a stirring denouement: Red is finally released, and finds a note from Andy — right where he said it would be, from an earlier scene before his escape — telling Red where to find him. Red, not cut out for the “real world” any more than Brooks was, hops on a bus to Mexico, breaking his parole. The two friends are reunited on the beach, Thomas Newman’s gorgeous score swells, and you’d have to be made of stone not to feel something.
Why is this film so effective? The phrase “power of the human spirit” is overused to the point of cliche, but it’s the kind of platitude seemingly invented for Shawshank. Nothing is predictable, but it feels inevitable just the same…the good kind of inevitable, where as it unfolds on the screen you feel the magic in every frame. The world of Shawshank Prison is so grounded in reality, so lived-in, that you forget that you’re watching a movie, and trust that — like Andy — your faith in him and in the storytellers will be rewarded.
The story simply works: we care deeply for Andy and Red, and want them both to get what they deserve. When they do, it almost seems too good to be true, because we’ve been trained to think that a film can’t be taken seriously as a piece of art without darkness or melancholy. But Shawshank puts no stock in that. The ending is sunny, almost saccharine, but perfect. The integrity of the characters shines through, and is validated. That’s how simple it is, and how simple it can be.