By Chinaza Ezeh
“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” And that is exactly what The Shawshank Redemption is all about. An adaptation of Stephen King’s classic 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 prison drama written and directed by Frank Darabont stars Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, William Sadler and James Whitmore, to name a few.
L to R: Andy and Red, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, respectively. Source: Hollywood Reporter
In the year 1947, banker Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is found guilty (although he denies it) of the murders of his wife and her lover, and is henceforth sentenced to two life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Upon arrival, he meets fellow inmate Red (Freeman) who is serving a life sentence of his own. The two take a liking to each other, and Andy is soon assimilated into Red’s friend group. Over the next nineteen years, Andy faces a multitude of trials and tribulations within those walls, including rape, corruption, and exploitation. The corruption and exploitation starts right at the top, from prison warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), a man who swears by the Bible, yet ironically has no issue in the guards, particularly Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), employing exceedingly brutal and violent force among the prisoners, nor in using Andy’s banking experience as a way to launder money and handle financials for the prison staff, guards from other prisons, and himself. Despite the bleakness of prison life, Andy is able to find joys in his new normal, particularly when he gains the privilege of working in the prison library, and takes it upon himself to completely revamp it and bring it to life. But perhaps more importantly than that, he makes true connections with Red and his friends, and from each other they experience the meaning of true friendship.
The most exceptional part of this film, which in and of itself is already exceptional, is the acting. The most memorable are the performances of Robbins and Freeman, although the whole cast is deserving of high praise. Robbins brings a sort of mystery to Andy Dufresne that is somewhat hard to explain. He is a peculiar character, yet the audience is immediately drawn to him. He is able to avoid the trap of going about Andy as a slighted and vengeful innocent convict, yet also avoids the other extreme of playing an overly optimistic hero, ready to make the best of his situation. Robbins also avoids drowning Andy in depression and angst. Rather, he finds a balance among all three, in a subtle and delicate way. One scene in particular that brings out the best in Robbins is the roof tarring scene. Andy, Red, and their friends are chosen to work on a roof tarring project for a few weeks in the summer, a job they happily look forward to. While working, Andy overhears Captain Hadley complaining about the taxes that will bite into a recent inheritance. When Andy interjects, the Captain nearly throws him from the roof, but right on the ledge, Andy convinces him that he can legally make it so that none of it is taken by the IRS. In return, Andy asks that beers are provided for his fellow workers. The deal is done, and in an extremely heartwarming scene, the men enjoy beers during a sunset atop that roof, yet Andy doesn’t partake in the pleasure. Instead, he sits off to the side, a strange expression of content on his face. Robbins portrays two sides of Andy in that scene; one with a brain quick enough to literally talk himself off of a ledge, and one that is simply a good human, being able to take joy in the act of bringing joy to others.
Red, whose real name is Ellis Redding, is embodied by Freeman in a way that makes it clear that he is someone with wisdom that is to be respected, yet also has plenty of goodness in his heart. The audience gets to understand him on a deeper level through the narration and commentary he provides throughout the film. Freeman’s eyes truly tell a story, and perhaps being able to speak with the eyes from the perspective of someone that isn’t yourself is a skill only actors as experienced as Freeman can master. It is quite impossible to dislike Freeman’s portrayal of Red, with his resounding laugh and friendly presence, even though he can get rather stern at times, like when he and Andy butt heads on the concept of hope, something he has let go of yet Andy fervently holds on to, and when he lectures one of his friends on what it means to be institutionalised, both of which are huge themes throughout the work.
Inmates in the yard after a harrowing incident, leading up to Red explaining “institutionalised”. Source: OpenEdition Journals
Another outstanding aspect of the film is the writing, especially the character development. Never did I expect that I would grow to truly like a bunch of incarcerated criminals over the span of two hours, yet that is exactly what happened. The story brings a new perspective of what it means to be a criminal, and argues that a lot of preconceived notions about criminals may not always be true, like that they are unremorseful or evil. Tackling the issue of institutionalization in American prisons is a tough feat, yet Darabont (using King’s bones) does so with grace. One quote in particular, spoken by Red in all his wisdom, really encapsulates the whole idea: “I’m telling you, these walls are funny. First you hate them. Then you get used to them. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalised.” Addressing such topics in film is one thing, but addressing them well enough to resonate with audiences across the world is another. Films are meant to add to people’s lives, and Shawshank adds a willingness to understand and perhaps question the prison system for those that have never even been within a mile of one’s radius.
At the end of the day, The Shawshank Redemption is magic set in a very real world. The acting, which leaves behind big and loud in favor of natural and deliberate, brings King’s work to life, so well, in fact, that according to an interview by Deadline, King reported it as one of his top two favorite adaptations of his works. Darabont’s direction and adaptation of the script is exceptional, and is able to reach the hearts and challenge the minds of literally any audience through it’s raw realness and poetically simple and memorable scenes. I could not recommend this film enough, and I will surely pass it on to my kids in the future. For myself, I can without a doubt say that this film changed my views on prison institutions and even capital punishment. Although Shawshank provides practical messages relating to very real and serious topics, I also love its story of hope and friendship. Watching the inmates’ friendships—especially Andy and Red’s—grow over the years is a rare thing to find in films. They aren’t an action duo, or a superhero pair, or a comedy dyad. They are just men that share the bond of friendship. They laugh with each other, work with each other, learn from each other, and endure side-by-side. They inspire hope in each other, even if the other one doesn’t quite know it yet. And that is a beautiful thing.