As someone who was born at the tail end of the millennial generation, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do when it comes to watching classic films, particularly in the last five years when I’ve had unfettered access to them thanks to the streaming revolution. “The Shawshank Redemption,” Frank Darabont’s masterful adaption of Stephen King’s 1982 novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is the latest classic I got to enjoy, thanks to the major slowdown of major releases in the cinema.
Shawshank tells the tales of two men, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a former banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) a lifelong convict who is “the man who can get you things” and will sell you them at a fair price. There are other great characters in Shawshank State Penitentiary, where most of the movie take place, like Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton); Prison Guard Captain Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown); Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows), a young and rebellious beatnik convict Red and Andy take a liking to; and the elderly prison librarian Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore). We’ll get to them and what they all add to the story and world of the movie, but at its core, Shawshank tells a heartwarming tale of two lifelong friends who found friendship and love in each other while enduring some of the worst circumstances life can throw at you.
When we first meet Andy, who is in a way as the audience’s stand-in for the world of the movie, we don’t know what to make of him. The entire film is narrated by Red, and like any good storyteller, he doesn’t give away anything good too soon, which makes the film extremely engaging. We meet Andy at his sentencing trial, in which his judge says “You strike me as a particularly icy and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne. It chills my blood just to look at you.” Andy barely says a word during the first fourth of the movie; all we see are his blank, icy expressions and his reclusive demeanor that gives you the impressions that this man is probably a killer.
The film goes to great lengths to show how the dynamics of Shawshank work. The men are in their cells at night, and during the day they eat, they shower, they work, they hang around the prison yard, they participate in intramurals, and they socialize. In Andy’s case, he tries not to get raped by a group of inmates called The Sisters, who prey on him in his first few years in the prison. Shawshank’s first third is dismal, hopeless, and bleak, and the prison’s management only adds to that.
Captain Hadley and his guards terrorize anyone who steps out of line (Andy’s first night, they beat a new convict who is caught crying so bad they send him to the infirmary, where he succumbs to his injuries). Between Hadley and The Sisters, Andy lives in fear for the first third of the movie. The Warden, who is extremely Christian and takes it upon himself to teach his inmates his values, is a benevolent force mostly absent from the first third of the movie, until Andy changes up the dynamics in the prison in a single day.
Andy and Red’s relationship starts out as purely one of business, as Andy requests a small rock hammer he wants to use to carve stones into chess pieces. Red takes a liking to Andy, so much so that he helps get him a job outside working on the roof of the prison, in which they spend their days under the supervision of Captain Hadley, who complains how he is going to have to pay taxes on money he will get from a deceased relative, in which case Andy risks his life by interjecting that there’s a loophole in the tax code he can take advantage of, and he agrees to file the necessary paperwork in exchange for a few beers, which he gives to Red and the other men working on the roof to gain their trust and support. Suddenly, Andy’s situation changes at the drop of a hat, as Hadley takes advantage of his background in banking and word spreads fast.
Andy finds himself being the prison’s most valuable inmate in a dramatic fashion, as all the guards use him to get their tax returns done at little to no cost, which draw the attention of the warden, who has bigger plans for Andy. After his gamble on the rooftop, Andy has protection and privilege, which he uses to get a library built in the prison, and to help inmates like Tommy Williams pass their high school equivalency tests, giving them a much better chance of success when he’s out. The Sisters get off his back, as their leader gets beat up by Hadley and his men so bad that he spends the rest of his days in a hospital.
But not all is well, as the warden uses Andy to eventually launder money to enrich himself, and when he realizes that Andy poses a threat to his schemes, he does all he can to beat obedience out of him, which propels the film into its third act in which Andy attempts to beat the system he finally mastered once and for all.
Everyone does a great job in this film, and its another great example of the fact that you don’t need a blockbuster budget to make a great film. “Shawshank” was filmed on a $25 million, and you can tell not a penny was wasted. What makes “Shawshank” stand out is the richness in its storytelling and its memorable characters, from Hadley, to the Warden, to the central dynamic between Andy and Red, to the likes of Brooks Hatlen, who introduces a central concept of the film: What happens to these convicts when they get out?
As the prison librarian, Hatlen is a man of importance, and ends up being paroled after spending 50 years “on the inside”, which is a huge adjustment he does not take well. Brooks went to prison in 1904 and came out in 1954, and the entire world has moved on while he was incarcerated. He gawks at how prominent automobiles have becomes, and he struggles in his new job bagging groceries at a local supermarket.
In the end, it was too much for him, and he hangs himself, reinforcing that, contrary to what some might think prison does to people, prison does not rehabilitate people; it only breaks them down, and if they’ve been in there long enough, molds them into somebody who can only function in that environment. It’s so bad that by the end of the film, Red dreads the day he finally make parole, and when he does he very nearly has the same fate as Hatlen, if it weren’t for the hope Andy installed in him (**spoilers, Andy escapes from prison**).
What can I say about this film that hasn’t been said before? It’s a classic that was snubbed by the Academy, but it didn’t matter. Watching this film for the first time in 2020 was an interesting experience, as moreso than ever, “Shawshank” portrays a world that no longer exists, before the technology boom of the 1990s, early 2000s and 2010s. When this film came out, it was a few decades removed from its subject matter, so I can easily see its original audience not see it as a period film. However, in 2020, “Shawshank” is unmistakably a period film, as it portrays a prison system that no longer functions the way it does in the film, a world long forgotten, and a period where everything was much simpler.
“The Shawshank Redemption” is a great film to watch while in self-quarantine. It makes you appreciate what you have and is one of those feel-good films that give you hope in the human spirit.
“The Shawshank Redemption” gets a 10/10