Seductive, lyric fantasy and the horrors of genuine human suffering don't usually work together. And it's not often that the American moviegoing public is treated to a movie that contains scenes of brutal sodomy and scenes of achingly clear-eyed sentiment -- and by sentiment I don't mean a few feel-good lines. I mean romantic speeches over sunsets and ocean vistas. Long speeches. This is high seriousness, and it's mixed with the sort of too-careful attention to detail in costuming and set dressing that can be irksome in a bad movie. In The Shawshank Redemption, though, the detail, the sentiment and the horror all work wonderfully, for the simple reason that they all support a story that deserves them. Shawshank has more than the story as well; it has Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins absolutely believing every line they say, and an amazing supporting cast playing incarcerated losers and evil prison administrators. And everything clicks.
The Shawshank Redemption is the story of two prison inmates, Red Redding (Freeman) and Andy Dufresne (Robbins), and how they become friends. Mostly set in a gothic, grandly photographed Maine prison, the film traces a period from the mid-'40s to the mid-'60s, though inside the prison the passage of time is hard to tell. In the Stephen King novella the film is based on, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, character elements wouldn't work unless the prison felt real and was peopled mostly with scum and the doomed. The same is true of the movie.
Stephen King story or no, the only extreme thing about The Shawshank Redemption is the penitentiary it's set in. Otherwise the story is all about relationships and friendships and wouldn't be recognizable to readers who think of King as a simple horror writer.
Though we're introduced to Shawshank State Prison by Andy Dufrense (the film's opening scenes show Dufrense on trial for the murder of his wife and her lover) the movie is told from Red's point of view in an ongoing series of voice-overs. Andy Dufresne is a quiet man, so having Red guess at the motives of the man who becomes his friend is the way we get to know them both. As Red tells it, he's the only guilty man in Shawshank. The others, as they tell it, had rotten lawyers or bad luck. Red's a lifer and, as he explains in one of the earliest voice-overs, "I'm the guy who can get it for you. Tailor-made cigarettes, a bag of reefer if you're partial to that, a bottle of brandy to celebrate your son's or daughter's high school graduation, or almost anything else." Freeman's steady narration has a bedtime story quality about it -- even when he's talking about gang rape, even when he says that Andy always fought it and even when he says he only wishes he could report that Andy won.
Andy Dufresne himself doesn't say much. Robbins' stiff banker is an odd duck in the prison yard. He's self-contained. And smart: his banker's knowledge makes him the warden's pet valet and unpaid accountant. But even before that, Red thinks Andy is special. He doesn't seem to have condemned himself like Shawshank's other inmates. So Red watches Andy. And watches. He has, as he frequently reminds us, plenty of time, and that time leads to grave and gentle speculation on Andy's motives for kindnesses to his fellows, his motives for suffering in silence and his motives for rebelling.
For all the talking, and the casual pace of the storytelling, The Shawshank Redemption is a suspenseful movie. The source of this suspense is nothing cheap such as, "Will they get parole?" Instead, the suspense is that of human discovery. In tiny, heartbreaking increments, Red and Andy become friends. What is at stake in the film is dignity, and then trust. The question is: given their circumstances, can these men be something good, and then can they share that good with each other? Andy is continually earnest. In the course of his 20 years with Red, Andy speaks to his friend of hope. Red's recipe for survival is to accept that things are hopeless, to adapt to what he sees as the realities of Shawshank. Andy won't agree.
"Hope," he says in one of his terse expositions, "is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." Red, who's known his share of dashed hopes, can't bear to believe that. Red knows -- and Andy's own experience at the hands of brutal rapists seems to prove it -- that everyone gets fucked. And yet Red can't think Andy a fool. During all their years in prison, Red never sees Andy lose his dignity, and he sees Andy accomplish things. He's seen him win concessions from the guards, not for himself, but for other inmates. He's seen him fill up a nearly empty prison library. He's seen him use that library to reduce the recidivism of his fellow prisoners.
Andy, because of his education, and later because of his cleverness, has cause for hope. Though his intelligence and persistence are important to the plot, they really aren't important to the core of The Shawshank Redemption. The real redemption at issue here is Red's; Andy is the catalyst, Red is the one we watch to see the reaction. When Andy talks to Red about hope, Red realizes he has a simple choice: he can settle for being institutionalized (they talk about that, all the prisoners; they talk about being unable to survive outside the walls) or he can accept Andy's alternative.
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That's the struggle Red faces as he goes before the parole board, something he does regularly. Each time, the board asks him if he's rehabilitated. Each time, he says in a canned spiel that, yes sir, he is and he is no longer a danger to society. But the last time Red goes before the parole board, and they repeat the familiar question, he tells them he doesn't know what the word means. Then, in a voice-over, Red says that he doesn't know much, and the world has left him behind, but he does have a little faith in himself and in his friend. For an old, institutionalized, apparently broken-down man, having dignity and a small, fluttering hope is something. And the careful way in which The Shawshank Redemption shows that something grow is what makes the movie a marvel.
The Shawshank Redemption.
Directed by Frank Darabont. With Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton and William Sadler.