In the two decades I’ve been writing about film, The Shawshank Redemption has come up frequently. Nominated for countless industry awards for acting, writing, cinematography, and sound, this film hasn’t just entertained audiences for the last twenty-five years but has served as a sort of gold standard to what cinematic storytelling can accomplish.
Back in school, my professors always emphasized a criticism style that took into account a film’s narrative, technical, and thematic aspects, so my reviews always followed that format (often with a stubborn obsession on theme). It’s a rare joy to be able to write about a film that succeeds in all three areas the way this one so skillfully does. Well-written, expertly crafted, and still relevant to the human experience, this throwback is exactly what we all need in these uncertain times. It reminds us that hope is possible.
Based on Stephen King’s short story (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), the film follows former banker and convicted murderer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) as he serves two life sentences in a New England state prison.
Andy is initially a very distant protagonist who navigates the dangers of prison life in a practically removed fashion, but fellow inmate Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman), or “Red,” as he’s known, befriends Andy, an unlikely relationship develops, and on it’s taken. The redemption piece emerges pretty clearly throughout the film and definitely at the film’s famous conclusion (which is among the most infamous and visceral-reaction-provoking in film history), but it’s important to not forget the little redemptions that take place throughout the story, too: music, books, baseball, and in a nice moment of self-reflexivity, the film-within-the-film Gilda (starring, you guessed it, Rita Hayworth, complete with the hair-toss moment and everything). The little things that Shawshank’s prisoners took for granted on the outside become the very things that allow them to maintain their humanity on the inside. Screenwriter/director Frank Darabont added several such supplementary items not originally included in King’s original story but none as powerful as the prisoners’ responses to a Mozart opera when Andy illicitly broadcasts it on a record player over the prison yard. These moments do more than just keep the viewers from drowning in the appalling world of hazing (“Fresh Fish!”), assault (head guardsman Byron Hadley or even more distressing, The Sisters), maggoty meat, and corruption. Andy is showing his fellows (and us) that in a terrible situation, there are still things that matter, things that humans can share and enjoy, things that allow humans to hold onto hope. Hope also shines through many of the technical aspects of the story.
Fans of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work will recognize his always “right-for-the-movie” composition, camera work, and emotional ties to the film’s subject matter in nearly every shot. Slow pans of the unflinching jurors in Andy’s trial give way to the same motion across prison bars. Eagle eye views and slow, moving camera approaches of the environment of the prison and beyond show the characters as masters of these spaces, slaves to them, or eventually, becoming redeemed by them. Music shifts in and out in varying forms: a staticky victrola, folk fiddle and guitar, Hank Williams, and rockabilly together with the aforementioned Mozart provide not only accompaniments but extension and depth to the actions of the characters and their responses to those actions.
How is hope achieved thematically, and why do we need this in our lives? Prison films are not always high on everyone’s must-see list, after all. For better or worse, friendship is shown to be an insulating factor for the prisoners and a band-of-brothers camaraderie develops and intensifies throughout the film, showing us positive belonging and loyalty. Rather than waiting out his time, sullen and alone in his cell, Andy creates a library and becomes a sort of mentor, teaching other inmates to read, and offering insight into music and literature. Insane optimism? Maybe, but the bigger message could simply be “find the good and share it with others,” (if you can).
The good versus evil aspect of this film (largely avoided in this review so as to be spoiler-free) factors into every action within the prison of course, and early on, one gets the feeling that Andy Dufresne, in his day-to-day activities and later his complacency within the corrupt prison system, is fighting an unwinnable fight against a giant (or in this case, a pious warden). We are not in Andy Dufresne’s situation, but many of us have been in touch with hopelessness, have tried to achieve something impossible, or have longed for resolution that just didn’t happen quickly enough. The fact that we crave Andy’s success and root for him (and Red) throughout the film drives the experience--we all have hope, that greatest of all things, inside us, we just want to see it realized.
The first step is where we are now, the second is whatever we decide to get busy doing.
By Anna Purrington