By Marc S. Sanders
The purest form of humanity can be found in some of the most unexpected places. Frank Darabont’s first film, The Shawshank Redemption, based upon a novella by Stephen King is a perfect example of that truth. In a federal prison, the true test of a man’s character is established. Will a prisoner be as cold hearted as the crime he’s been punished for, or will he find a deeper meaning to his existence for himself and those around him? What if this particular man is actually innocent, wrongfully convicted? Will his innocence of crime be upheld?
To experience The Shawshank Redemption is to learn about a community that I am completely unfamiliar with, and I’d bargain most of its viewers are as well. Shawshank prison is not a place I would like to check into. Though many of its residents display heart and comradery, nonetheless. These men likely didn’t know they were capable of such merit until Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrived to serve two concurrent life sentences for murdering his wife and her extramarital lover. Andy says he’s innocent without any desperation or urgency because none of that elevated showmanship would make a difference. The evidence and circumstances at trial unfortunately were coincidental to easily sentence Andy for a crime he didn’t commit. Everyone at Shawshank insist they’re innocent. Likely though, Andy is the only one who can genuinely make that claim.
Andy’s introduction to the prison is hard for the first couple of years. He’s consistently beaten and raped by inmates who need to exhaust their sexual tendencies. Fortunately, he sidles up with Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman in maybe my favorite role of his career). Red is the go-to man for contraband resources like whiskey or as Andy requests a small rock hammer and a large poster of Rita Hayworth. Everyone is happy to know a guy like Red. Yet, Andy does not lose sight of his personal value. He was a banker by trade and when an opportunity opens up, he assists the viciously frightening prison guard Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown, who really should have more villainous roles in film beyond his voiceover as Lex Luthor in cartoons) with a legally accepted government tax exemption. More importantly Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) takes advantage of Andy’s talents to sustain his seemingly innocent money laundering schemes.
There is much education to be had from viewing The Shawshank Redemption. I learned what the term “institutionalized” means from Red’s experience. A man who has served a near half century has become accustomed to prison life. He offers little significance or purpose outside the prison walls. I also learned the value of music and literature and art. It’s needed to survive those lonely nights in a prison cell, or worse in the hole where you can wind up should you step out of line from the Warden’s strict guidelines of adhering to discipline and the Holy Bible. What you hear and what your read stay with you in your heart and mind, offering a most valuable commodity – hope. A life sentence will take away your liberties to walk freely among the masses, but nothing will take away what you’ve absorbed. If you can at least hold on to your memories, then you will never lose hope. Andy reminds Red and his fellow prison inmates of the hope you hold onto no matter how long you are held against your will.
Frank Darabont introduces a spectacular midway scene where Andy finally receives a donation of books and records for a prison library he envisions building for Shawshank. He uncovers a vinyl record of an Italian opera and with complete disregard for rules, he airs the music through the intercom. Darabont gathers gorgeous close ups of the hundreds of prison extras with overhead shots of the yard, woodshop and infirmary. The men freeze for a moment to look up in the sky from where the music is emanating from while mixed in with the soothing voiceover narration from Freeman. It’s a beautifully directed scene. A risky scene for late 20th century audiences who are used to quick cuts of action in their films with powerhouse soundtracks and pop music. Darabont found a way to connect the audience delicately to the film through Andy’s personal values and Red’s learned observations.
The Shawshank Redemption is an exceptional piece of writing. I can’t compare it to King’s source material as I’ve never read the story. Having said that, I’m typically hot and cold on the author’s books and screenplays. Sometimes they go too over the top for me. However, Darabont honed in on a perfect balance of likable characters and honest life within a prison; at least I feel that it’s honest. All men are created with good inside them. What they learn from day one is what can drastically change them and what can come of their sins can revert their instincts. Andy Dufresne is the instrument that redeems the men of Shawshank prison. Tim Robbins is right in this role; maybe his best role for his career as well. He does not underestimate any of the men in Shawshank and keeps to his personal enrichment which he also shares, despite the selfish hypocrisy of those meant to maintain order like the Norton and Hadley.
Morgan Freeman is the man who is becoming more and more institutionalized to prison life, always failing to get paroled for a murder he committed when he was a young and stupid kid. If not for Robbins’ melancholy performance as Andy, Freeman’s performance as Red would not realize a new kind of importance for himself. In fact, many of the inmates wouldn’t be able to acknowledge what they are capable of or what they mean in the world they live in without Red, but more importantly Andy as well. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins make for one of the best on screen couples in film history. Their chemistry is magical. Any scene between them can be studied for the weight of emotion or lack there of which the two actors carry. They both went on to win Oscars later in their career, respectively from a pair of Clint Eastwood projects actually, but the argument can be said that the awards should have come their way for Darabont’s film.
The ending to The Shawshank Redemption is an unforgettable and unexpected piece of storytelling that never seems to imply itself before the reveal and yet pleasantly makes so much sense. Maybe the one convenience to build to it’s winning conclusion stems from the location of Andy’s cell within Shawshank prison. Bah!!!! I dismiss that little contrivance to allow me to joyously appreciate this film over and over again.
There are ironies and unfortunate moments to see in The Shawshank Redemption. Still, there are revelations and opportunities to cheer and feel better about yourself when watching the movie. It’s one of the most uplifting films you will ever see. It’s inspiring and imaginative. Most of all it is smart and defiant. The Shawshank Redemption never believes in despair. It only grasps upon the hope of its characters. The Shawshank Redemption is a must see film.