“The Shawshank Redemption” is a movie about time, patience, redemption, and most of all, hope. The backbone of the story rests on the wrongful imprisonment of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins): a former investment banker who’s been framed for a crime - the murder of his wife - that he didn’t commit. The story of Shawshank follows Andy as he becomes friends with Red (Morgan Freeman), a lifer, just like him - “ a man who knows how to get things,” whether it be cigarettes, candy, or even a rock pick for an amateur geologist; and a man who’s been inside the walls of Shawshank Prison for a very long time.
But the heart of the story resides in Red’s narrative, and it even bleeds into beautifully orchestrated subplots of supporting prisoner characters, like Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) - a man who couldn’t make it on the “outside.” In fact, the moment Andy and Red’s paths intersect, Red takes the wheel of the story and fulfills the role of narrator, driving us through the psychological terrain of fighting battles with institutionalization and moving from imprisonment to freedom.
The two things I love most about “The Shawshank Redemption,” are, simply put - the beginning and the end.
The beginning is a hauntingly beautiful vignette of the event that serves as a basis for the dramatic premise of the story. It intertwines moments from two parallel narratives: 1) Andy sitting outside of a country club in at night in his car - drunk, and fiddling with a revolver in his lap, and 2) Andy standing on the witness stand at his trial for the murder of his wife and her lover. The conceptualization of constructing two separate blocks of narrative into a single block and glancing back at the footage of murder through flashbacks enriches the trial scene, which is the event that essentially derails Andy’s life and sets him on his path to Shawshank.
Moreover, our mere introduction to the Shawshank penitentiary is given to us through an astounding lens. It’s as if we’re a bird flying over the towering walls of Shawshank - the camera soars and pans around hundreds of inmates crossing the prison grounds, and ominous swells in orchestral strings push us to watch closely during our flight around Shawshank from the outside looking in.
Red’s narrating voice helps ease us into the waters of Shawshank - we see a bus of new prisoners ride in, including Andy, and we watch as the fresh inmate fish disembark from the bus into the sea of prisoners. In fact, Red speaks for all of the prisoners - he allows us to understand the pace and feeling of the passage of time, and he allows us to see Andy the way he sees him. We are convinced to maintain integrity in the idea that Andy will survive his years in prison - not by being violent or kissing butt, but rather by formidably being sure of himself. Andy even influences Red to rise from hopelessness inside the institutionalized walls of Shawshank and to believe in the freedom of hope.
Shawshank’s story inhabits universal feelings that saturate the human experience - survival, good and evil, individual versus the system, hope. It paints time and the characters wading in it with patient strokes. From its writing to its cinematography, every visual movement or narrative voice feels like punctuation; every element inside the film develops a character, shapes a behavior, or articulates a moment.
As articulated by Tim Robbins in an Off Camera interview - Shawshank is in a class of its own because of the story it's telling, and because of the way it resolves the way it’s resolved. Shawshank’s ending feels as whole and complete as it does when one envelopes a beautiful letter before sending it off to its recipient. From Andy’s escape, Red making it on the “outside,” and reuniting with Andy at “a place that’s warm with no memory” - the ending is as beautiful as a dream.
Oftentimes, a lot of happy endings are tacked onto films; with Shawshank, it feels that after a long journey of torment and gradual redemption, a happy ending is well-deserved - it is earned. The ending is hopeful, life-affirming, and it feels like a breath of content because of the struggles of many characters on screen to get there. Shawshank’s close encapsulates the human capacity to survive - intellectually, spiritually, and physically.
The ideas is that hope can keep us alive. The reason why the film resonates deeply with people is because it’s a message we don’t often hear in a genuine way on the big screen. It’s not about immediate satisfaction, but about our happiness in the long run.
Whether you’re trapped in your own life in a place you deeply dislike - whether it be within a career, relationship, or so on - Shawshank metaphorically talks to all of those people. It says that there’s a place like Andy and Red’s island - a moment for all of us - that’s achievable. It says that we have to have patience and maintain a clear idea of who we are and what we want. And eventually - hopefully - we’ll achieve what we want, so long as we remember to take our time, redeem ourselves when we fall, and most importantly - hope.