A Few Brief Moments of Hope
Film essay by: Witney Seibold
Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” opened in September of 1994, and immediately tanked. It did get some critical support, appeared on several top-10 lists, and, indeed was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. But that didn’t help the film’s grosses at all, only confirming big-studio fears that audiences don’t want to see a film that is 142 minutes long, takes place mostly in a prison, and is about non-action-oriented, “serious” things like redemption. Even its title was weird. “Shawshank” received no Academy Awards, although, in its defense, it was up against heavy hitters like “Pulp Fiction,” “The Lion King,” “Red,” and “Forrest Gump.”
But then, an unlikely thing happened. “The Shawshank Redemption” found a niche on home video. It became one of the most widely rented and purchased VHS tapes in the medium’s history. It began to gather a cult about it. The cult, though, soon grew to a size that could only be considered a popular groundswell, and “The Shawshank Redemption” came to be one of the most loved films of the decade. On the Internet Movie Database, “Shawshank” has risen to #1 on its top-250 list, and has stayed there for years, regularly beating out “The Godfather,” and geek classics like “The Lord of the Rings.”
It’s hard to watch this film, and not be moved by it. It is a Dickensian epic, without the discomfort or twee cleverness. It is a story of redemption without the sentimentality. It’s a tale of hope conquering all, without the theatrics.
The film is told, after a brief courtroom prologue, from the perspective of Ellis “Red” Redding (an irrepressible Morgan Freeman), the go-to man for low-level contraband in Shawshank prison, circa 1946. He can get you cigarettes, rock hammers, posters, you name it. “I’m a regular Sears & Roebuck.” He, like all the other prisoners, likes to make bets on which of the new inmates will have a noisy breakdown on their first night in prison. When we first see Red, he is making his appeal for parole after 20 years of a life sentence. At 20 years, he is pleading, humble. He clutches his hat in his hands.
How is it that Red manages to capture our feelings so tightly? Freeman manages to take a man who behaves like a scoundrel and a criminal, and make his behavior endearing, understandable, close to us. Indeed, the entire film manages to make you feel like friends to the characters. We don’t just see their actions; we’re welcomed into their circle.
When we first see Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), Red comments to himself that it looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. Andy is serving two life sentences for killing his wife and her lover in a fit of passion. He claims to be innocent of this crime. Red bets that Andy will be the one to break down on the first night. Andy does not make a peep.
We’re slowly introduced to a small circle of friend in this prison. We meet the old librarian Brooks (James Whitmore). We meet the mouthy Haywood (an underrated William Sadler). We also get to know some of the unpleasant realities of prison life. We meet the brutal guard Hadley (Clancy Brown). We meet Bogs (an excellent Mark Rolston) the man who has decided to abuse and rape other prisoners to pass the time. And we meet Warden Norton, a Bible-thumper with a cruel streak. Norton is played by Bob Gunton, who is one of those supporting character actors, like Sadler, who deserves more acting credit than he normally gets.
Perhaps it is Freeman’s mellifluous narrating voice that does it, but, despite the horrors and desperation of prison life, we feel like we’re part of a new family. The film is so skilled in its pacing and story and it slowly manages to wrap us up in good hopeful feelings.
Or perhaps it’s because we never get to see directly inside Andy, the film’s main character. All of Andy’s actions are seen through the eyes of another character. The ever-observant Red notes how Andy strolls through a prison, in an uncharacteristically relaxed fashion. When he is regularly attacked by Bogs and his crew of rapists, we see the desperation in his face, but we never hear him complain. We know Andy is smart, quiet, intelligent, and, perhaps, up to something. Robbins, with his sedate attitude and quiet Mona Lisa smirk, is able to project cleverness and hope and depth and excitement without saying a word. The other prisoners see him as a breath of fresh air.
When Andy helps out a prison guard with some financial matter, Norton begins to see him as an asset who can be exploited to beneficial ends, but punished if his own guilt should settle in.
I love the dynamic between Norton and Andy. Norton, despite his ultra-Christian preaching, has become one of the biggest collectors of bribes in the state: he takes money from high-power friends, and lends them prisoners as cheap labor, all in the name of “rehabilitation.” Norton, though, needs an accountant to cook the books, and uses Andy to do it. Andy knows he is being used, and knows he is in a desperate position. Norton knows he needs Andy’s services, but also knows that he may have to punish this man at a moments notice. For a few brief moments, it looks like these men could become simpatico, but circumstances, and, most of all guilt, keeps them at bay. Note the way Norton will not touch the money he has accepted when Andy puts it in a safe, or the way he reacts when Andy uses the word “money” in a casual conversation. Norton is a fully realized character who is wicked, is driven by guilt and greed, but comes across as disturbingly human.
But this film is ultimately a story about Red, and his own redemption. At his 30-year parole hearing, he is introverted, defeated, going through the motions. Andy, at one point, talks of hope. Red points out to him that hope, in a prison, is a very dangerous thing. It can drive a man mad. He gives us what can be called the film’s catchphrase: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” That phrase has two meanings.
Look at Andy’s face in the famous scene where he hijacks the warden’s office to play a Mozart aria over the prison’s loudspeaker. His entire character can be encapsulated in that look. His hidden intelligence, his love for the outside world, his hope, his longing for freedom, his ability to survive under the crushing heel of defeat. His instinctive need to spread beauty and hope in one of the world’s most ugly places.
For those brief moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.
Andy cannot tell Red what he ultimately does have planned, and if you’re one of the people in the world who has not yet seen the film, I won’t discuss it openly. But I will point out that Andy manages to involve Red in his plan in a way that’s not only a clever cinematic plotting scheme, but a clever way to allow Red to follow his own heart and redeem himself and learn to hope again. When his 40-year parole hearing comes around, Red is finally indifferent to the system, swears at the parole board, and declares how meaningless this whole process is. In a hilarious miracle, this does the trick.
Something I really appreciate is how non-fetishized the violence in this movie is. There are indeed sceens of violence, but they stand in stark contrast to the violent scenes in other films. While Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” covers similar thematic territory (hope in a hopeless situation, life in the face of death), it can be argued that the film lingers a little too gleefully over its gore and horror; When a Jew is beaten, we get to see the blood hit the snow. In “Shawshank,” the violence is largely implied, and we accept it as a part of prison life but we don’t have to deal with the raw, fleshy, bloody aspect of it. “The Shawshank Redemption” is, dare I say, tasteful.
In most of the Classic Film essays I’ve been churning out, I like to point out how the film in question bucks cinematic conventions and does something new with the form. “The Shawshank Redemption” does nothing new with the cinematic form, using no clever shooting techniques, and inventing no revolutionary things. What it does do is scale back its pacing, and have the conviction to be about the interiors of human hearts rather than the results of their actions. Like “Casablanca” before it, it assembled a genre director (Darabont was known at that point only for writing horror movies like “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” and the remake of “The Blob”), a high profile cinematographer, Roger Deakins, an acclaimed composer, Thomas Newman, and a cast of good actors, and managed to make a film that was even bigger than the filmmakers’ ambitions.
This film has become so loved and so familiar in the last 15 years, that I scarcely feel like I have to say much more. It’s a prison movie about family. It’s a film with beatings and killings and rape with a deep message of hope. It is skillfully made, impeccably acted, and utterly superb.
It may have been a box office flop upon its initial release, but after years on home video, it had gathered the appreciation it perhaps should have received the first time around. It now is one of the best-selling videos to date, and was even granted a theatrical re-release a few years ago. It even is frequently featured as part of midnight movie programs. Yes, the film has the power to even work its way through the snarky, ironic armor worm by college kids, and touch them. That’s no small feat.