Analysis of The Shawshank Redemption
Copyright 2000 Andy Box
Spoiler Alert: The following comments discuss the ending of the movie. I HIGHLY recommend watching the movie first before reading on.
Based on a Stephen King novella, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of the friendship between two convicts, a seasoned veteran of the system (Red, played by Morgan Freeman) and a newcomer who refuses to let the system destroy him (Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins). This 1994 film is the first written and directed by Frank Darabont, who also wrote and directed the 1999 screen adaptation of another King novel, The Green Mile. Most critics agree that the strongest feature of The Shawshank Redemption is the strong performances by its two lead actors. Critics disagree on other points, from the quality of the script and direction to the essence of the film.
To me, The Shawshank Redemption is the story of two friends who struggle to survive the horrors of prison and who, each in his own way, help each other get out. I agree with an anonymous review on the film’s Internet Movie Database page that says the film is two stories in one. At first it seems to be about Andy’s struggle to endure the prison and keep himself busy and hopeful so he doesn’t go insane before his escape. But in the other, larger perspective of the film, it is really about Red and his ability to survive on the outside. Because of what he learned from Andy about determination and hope, along with Andy’s invitation to join him in Mexico, Red meets a different fate than their friend Brooks did.
Like most reviewers I’ve read, I loved the performances of both Robbins and Freeman, and several other aspects of the film really stand out. Robbins has a face like Kevin Spacey’s that can convey twenty different emotions at once, everything from fear and despair to hope and confidence. This complexity enables him to convey the intelligence and duplicity of Andy Dufresne. Freeman’s eyes, hardened face, and strong, aged voice alone give him an incredible screen presence, making him perfect for the role of Red, the man who knows how the system works and “knows how to get things.”
Many other cinematic elements contributed to the success of the film. The cinematography and direction help make the prison real, from the towering walls of the cell block to the dark shadows of “the hole” where prisoners live during solitary confinement. The camera work, for example, helped reinforce many of the themes and characters. Red and Andy, when alone together, are usually shot close to emphasize their friendship. Instances of this include their first major scene when Andy asks for the rock hammer, the movie scene when he asks for Rita Hayworth, and the scene when Andy talks to Red about going to Mexico. One major exception is the final shot, a gorgeous helicopter or crane shot that pulls far away from their reunion on the Mexican beach. It ends the movie and shows us that they are now free and able to begin a new life in a new world (similar in many ways to the end scene of Shakespeare in Love when Viola walks alone on the Virginia beach). The scenes of actual prison life–the yard, the cell block, the rape scenes, the cafeteria–are usually shot a bit further away to show more of the setting and more of the prisoners and guards, adding to the realism of the film rather than developing the friendship between Andy and Red.
The beautiful score by Thomas Newman (American Beauty) reinforces the mood and tone of each scene without bombast or self-indulgence. Being a sucker for dramatic movie-end plot twists such as in Primal Fear and The Usual Suspects, I really enjoyed discovering the method Andy uses to escape and indict the warden.
The Shawshank Redemption is appropriately filled with religious imagery and allusions. Much of it is ironic and involves Warden Norton. The Warden is a hypocrite similar to the Pharisees of the Gospels. One of his first lines sums him up well: “Put your faith in God. Your ass belongs to me.” He gives all his convicts Bibles, and the first and only rule he tells the new inmates is not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Yet he pads his own pockets with money laundering scams and bribes, permits brutal punishment of his inmates, and even has one of them murdered when he jeopardizes the security of his schemes by offering Andy a chance at a new trial. In the end Andy uses his religiosity against him. Andy hides his rock hammer inside his Bible, and the Warden is too busy discussing and quoting Scripture to look inside it during his “inspection” of Andy’s cell. When he returns the Bible to Andy, he tells him that “salvation lies within,” a line which Andy throws back in his face after he escapes. The Warden hides his safe behind a picture that reads, “His judgement cometh, and that right soon.” He loves to judge his inmates and punish them when they break the rules. He seems to consider himself the instrument of God’s judgment on them. But in the end, thanks to Andy, his hypocrisy and crimes are exposed, and the camera zooms in on the picture as sirens wail outside the prison. Another significant religious image occurs when Andy emerges from the sewer pipe into the creek after his escape. After taking off one of his shirts, he stands in the creek, arms outstretched and lightning flashing around him. One can almost hear him echoing Jesus’s last words on the cross: “It is finished.”
One critic, the Washington Posts’s Desson Howe, suggested changing the movie’s title to “Forrest Gump Goes to Jail,” calling Andy’s rise within the prison “cheesily messianic”. Although a funny suggestion, I must disagree with his point that Andy’s status elevation is cheesy. Prison is a dark and difficult ordeal, full of many people who care mainly if not exclusively about themselves. Andy’s fellow inmates can tell that he is different, and they notice when neither the Sisters nor the guards can break his spirit. Somehow he keeps part of himself separate from the prison and figures out ways to make it better, such as earning beers for his fellow workers or fighting for the expansion of the library. He inspires them, just as we are inspired by people like Lance Armstrong who manage to keep fighting and succeed despite their adversity.
Furthemore, by giving Red something to hope for (the box hidden beneath the oak tree), Andy helps motivate him not to give up after his escape. Andy’s redemption is twofold. First, he ends his wrongful imprisonment, and then he does his best to bring justice to the prison system in return for the injustices that were done to him. Second, and more importantly, he redeems himself for the mistakes that he made with his wife. In his final pre-escape conversation with Red, Andy tells him that he was responsible for his wife’s death because he didn’t know how to show her he loved her and thus drove her away. In light of this realization, Andy changes the pattern with his friend Red by telling him about the box beneath the oak tree. This shows Red that he loves him; it is an effort both to help him survive the rest of his sentence and give him something to do once he finally gets out. By helping to save Red’s life, he redeems himself for his small role in his wife’s death.
Was the movie perfect, or the greatest film ever made, as claimed by some on the Internet Movie Database? I don’t believe so. The main flaws are plot holes regarding Andy’s escape plan. It is a large stretch of logic to believe that Andy could have spent nearly twenty years digging a tunnel that is covered only by a poster. Surely the guards would have checked behind the poster occasionally. The prisoners probably would have been moved to other cells at some point during that time. Moreover, the guards probably would have opened the books to check for items hidden in cut-out sections of the pages. However, given the ingenuity of the plan, the deliciousness of Andy’s revenge, and the overall messages of the film, these plot holes can be overlooked. On a one to ten scale, I give The Shawshank Redemption a nine.