Friday Film Focus: The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about time, patience and loyalty. Found guilty of killing his unfaithful wife and her lover in a fit of passion, sullen accountant Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is shipped to the gothic, wind-swept corridors of the Shawshank State Prison for life. Though he strenuously maintains his innocence, his dispassionate demeanor grates on the court. Circumstantial evidence proves enough to land him in Shawshank Prison with two concurrent life sentences. With a beautifully rounded script, writer/director Frank Darabont conjures up a spellbinding personal odyssey stretching through the years from 1946 to 1967.

The story is narrated by “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who has been inside the walls of Shawshank Prison for a very long time and is its leading entrepreneur. He can get you whatever you need: cigarettes, candy, even a little rock pick like an amateur geologist might use.

One day, he and his fellow inmates watch the latest busload of prisoners unload, and they make bets on who will cry during their first night in prison, and who will not. Red bets on Andy. But Andy does not cry and he soon turns out to be a surprise to everyone in Shawshank. Within him is such a powerful reservoir of determination and strength that nothing seems to break him. Robbins and Freeman have the juice as actors to make figuring out whether Andy and Red really did it a riveting guessing game.

Stephen King wrote the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, on which the film is based. King is a master at creating a whole world out of small details. The everyday agonies of prison life are meticulously laid out by acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins. You can almost feel the frustration and rage seeping into the skin of the inmates. There is humor too, however, as Red brings the painfully introverted Andy out of his shell.

Andy, a respected banker before being convicted, wins favor and permission to expand the prison library by offering financial advice to the Shawshank elite. That includes Hadley (Clancy Brown), the cruel captain of the guards, and Norton (Bob Gunton), the fanatically religious warden. We’ve seen these types before. There are also cobwebs on Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), the aged parolee who can’t adjust to the outside, and Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows, in a role once earmarked for Brad Pitt), the young thief who can’t live inside. Andy’s fame spreads, and eventually he’s doing the taxes and pension plans for most of the officials of the local prison system.

Red’s narration of the story allows him to speak for all of the prisoners, who sense a fortitude and integrity in Andy that survives the years. He will not back down. But he is not violent, just formidably sure of himself. Red is also a lifer. From time to time, measuring the decades, he goes up in front of the parole board, and they measure the length of his term and ask him if he thinks he has been rehabilitated. “Oh, most surely, yes” he replies, but the fire goes out of his assurances as the years march past.

There are key moments in the film, as when Andy uses his clout to get some cold beers for his friends who are working on a roofing job. Or when he oversteps his boundaries and is thrown into solitary confinement. The warden cannot afford to have Andy paroled. The man knows too much, and he is too valuable an asset. So, when the prospect of the truth rears its head, extreme measures come into play.

What quietly amazes everyone in the prison is the way Andy accepts the good and the bad as all part of some larger plan that only he can fully see. It’s the no-bull performances that hold back the flood of banalities. Robbins and Freeman connect with the bruised souls of Andy and Red to create something undeniably powerful and moving.

Darabont tries to match King visually. He paints the prison in drab grays and shadows, so that when key events do occur, they seem to have a life of their own.

The Shawshank Redemption is not a depressing story, although it may sound that way. There is a lot of life and humor in it, and warmth in the friendships that build. Both Robbins and Freeman are outstanding, layering their performances with snippets of individuality: Their small, daily interactions and minor triumphs are wonderfully inspiring.

Image Source: Archive Photos/Stringer/Getty Images