The first time I saw Shawshank Redemption was on a movie channel, shortly after its unheralded box office stint. I picked it up 15 minutes in, and spent much of the film wondering if the film’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) was guilty or innocent of his alleged murder. So naïve, I was.
Shawshank – my favorite movie of all-time – grows better with every viewing. There is simply too much depth, too much richness and too much to learn from this story to completely digest it in one pass.
It turns out that Shawshank is a story of guilt and innocence. It just has nothing to do with murder.
Andy Dufresne is a banker. Was a banker. He is smart, studious and hard working. But he’s also distant and cold, and that probably contributed to him pushing his wife away. He woke up one day and she was having an affair. And if that weren’t enough, the next day she was dead. He wears that guilt and despair on his face throughout the film’s opening stanza.
Perhaps his marriage was doomed from the beginning. It’s not important. Andy feels like he drove her away. I think many of us have done worse.
“A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
Could Andy be angry? Yes. Could he blame someone else? Of course. Instead, he gives.
His first gift is to himself, when he arranges to drink Bohemian style beer on the roof of the license plate factory with his “coworkers.” And Andy doesn’t even drink.* Instead, he just sits there with a giant grin on his face. Red (Morgan Freeman) thinks he did it just to feel like a free man again. I think he did it just to feel. A man can’t rescue someone who’s drowning if he can’t swim himself. That was his moment to start a new life.
*Shawshank is littered with these subtleties. 142 minutes of film and one line devoted to him giving up drinking. Yet this is no small statement – the only time we see Dufresne imbibing is while loading a gun outside his wife’s lover’s cabin. That intoxicated recklessness help land him in prison.
Andy’s next gift is to the prisoners. Their lives are monotonous. Some feel hopeless. These are not situations unique only to prison life.
So he unleashes three of the most beautiful minutes that any prison yard has ever heard, echoing Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro over the loud speakers. It is a stunningly beautiful scene, and one that reminds us that there are things in the world that aren’t made of concrete; There is beauty that can never be stripped from our own minds. That’s Andy’s gift to them, even if falls on deaf ears.
Then there’s Tommy (and the others Andy helps with the Brooks Hatlen library). Andy knows Tommy (Gil Bellows) has potential. He knows that his life is redeemable. It’s a project so important to Andy that maybe, just maybe, he stays in prison for many extra months just to see it through.
That project tragically ends at the hands of the film’s antagonist, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton). Publicly, Norton is a saint, characterized by pious musings and a charitable labor force. His character’s lesson is not about judging books by their cover. It’s that salvation lies within. And sometimes, those who need it the most never look inside the book in the first place.
For many years, I thought the redemption in Shawshank was Andy’s. After all, he’s the one who escapes and lives out his dream on a Mexican beach.
But it’s not. It’s Red’s.Andy’s ultimate gift to him is not only the universal gift of friendship, but also the gift of Hope. And it frees Red from institutionalization.
“Get busy living or Get busy dying.”
I’ve heard critics allege that prisoners are not as likeable as the cast of regulars in Shawshank, despite Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and many other historical figures finding themselves in similar positions of incarceration. But that’s not the point. This is a story of redemption, and the setting of a prison is just the bottle in which to carry the message.
We all make mistakes. We are all subject to some kind of imprisonment – societal, vocational, interpersonal. Shawshank itself is a gift, to remind us that even after 500 yards of sewage there is fresh water at the end of the pipe. That there are horizons, like the Pacific, that have no memory. That hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.
“I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”