The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is another movie that I knew a great deal about, like The Green Mile (1999), but had yet to see. Actually, I had seen bits and pieces of it. I remembered the part when Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) is released from Shawshank State Penitentiary and tragically hangs himself. I also recalled the ending when Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) is finally paroled and meets up with Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in Mexico. Outside of these, my only other references to it were in spoofs in shows like Robot Chicken, which I recognized based on my limited knowledge. All these fleeting scraps of memory and comical nods serve to trivialize what is actually a very powerful movie.
While The Shawshank Redemption is narrated by Red, it actually focuses on Andy. In 1947, he is accused of murdering his wife and her secret lover and sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Shawshank. Why it is necessary to tell someone that they need to spend their entire life in prison, and have another life to serve as well, has always seemed counter-intuitive to me. Then again, I am no lawyer. In any case, Andy is innocent of the charges, but is unable (like most of the other inmates in Shawshank, it seems) to secure adequate legal representation to get his name cleared. The institution (and that word is purposeful, as we shall see) Andy enters is under the strict rule of the Bible quoting disciplinarian (and, as it turns out, corrupt) Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton). On Andy’s first day at the prison, Norton’s guards, led by Captain Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), beat to death one of the “fresh fish” for failing to remain quiet while panicking over his newfound predicament. Shawshank’s guards are not Andy’s only potential problem. There is also the “Sisters” gang, led by Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston), who seem to make it their business to sexually assault Andy whenever the opportunity arises. What keeps Andy sane, at least as it seems, is how he makes himself useful to his fellow inmates and, eventually, the guards. He takes care of both groups in one stroke. While out working one day, Andy overhears Captain Hadley discussing financial business with his fellow officers. In exchange for some money advice (Andy was a bank president before being incarcerated), Andy is able to get a few beers for the group of convicts with which he is tarring a roof. By ingratiating himself in this manner, Andy grows in importance to the ledgers of the prison, and is able to obfuscate the shady dealings of Warden Norton. However, Andy’s closest relationship is with Red, who has a knack for obtaining almost anything. The most important tool Red obtains for Andy is a rock hammer, which is diminutive enough to be slipped into the prison unnoticed. Red wrote it off, saying that it would take a person hundreds of years to tunnel out of the prison using such an implement. As it turned out, it took Andy nineteen years to accomplish this task. Covering up his endeavors with posters of various era-specific bombshells (Rita Hayworth for the 1940s, Marilyn Monroe for the 1950s, and Raquel Welch for the 1960s), and telling no one, not even Red, Andy slowly and methodically planned out each part of his escape. Because he had been entrusted with prison funds, he had access to hundreds of thousands of dollars after he escaped, all put together under an alias he had set up with a proper social security card, driver’s license, and name on a bank account. He also mailed in the evidence needed to indict Warden Norton and Captain Hadley for their wrong-doings on his way out of town.
In my usual quest for finding full names for characters in movies, I noticed on the Wikipedia page for The Shawshank Redemption a claim that some critics see the film as being “grounded in Christian mysticism,” and that Andy is some kind of Christ-like figure. Okay, so Jesus did indeed walk with many people while here on Earth that one could see serving prison time. And Andy did earnestly try to bring good to everyone, except for the Sisters, I suppose. Maybe it is the word “mysticism” with which I have trouble? Salvation is a very real process, and Jesus announced it to the world. What separates Our Savior from Andy Dufresne is the fact that Andy is trying to earn salvation, while Jesus already was it. Thus it makes sense, even if I would stop short of putting Andy into the Carpenter’s shoes, to see Christian themes in the film. Of the many to choose from, the one I like best is its message of hope. Andy is beaten, raped, put in solitary confinement for months, and yet holds out the hope that he would be free. Still, this is somewhat of a narrow view of God’s salvific role in the world. As the movie unfolds, we all want justice for Andy. So does he. And when another inmate tells Andy of somebody else in the prison system who had actually confessed to killing Andy’s wife and lover, he thinks he has the opportunity he needs to get out of prison. Yet when Andy goes to Warden Norton with this revelation, because of the dirty secrets that Andy knows, he not only puts Andy in the hole but has the other inmate murdered. Romans 8:27 says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.” While it is not Faith that Andy puts his hope in, but rather his covert escape plan, it is still a striving for something better in the future that keeps him from being “institutionalized.” The prison is designed to break a person down and make them regret their actions. While when we sin, these emotional states are important things through which to go, it does not mean that we should linger on such things. When a person is confined for years on end (some of us, it does not take as long in the prisons we build for ourselves), they get used to their confinement. They grasp at things that provide illusions of freedom, like a cold bottle of beer on a hot day. But in reality, they have lost their hope (Red calls hope “dangerous” while doing time) and do not know how to handle it when they get in the real world. This is what Brooks experiences when trying to acclimate to life outside of the prison walls, and his institutionalization is what leads to him hanging himself. This also serves to underscore just how hard is hope, particularly when you feel hopeless. If you ever feel this way, I am here to tell you that God is real and that there is something better that He has in store for you. If you do not want to believe me, watch the film.
Like yesterday’s movie, The Shawshank Redmption is an R-rated, non-family friendly film. It is a prison movie, also like the previous one, thus it has many of the violent tropes you might expect. But, darn it, it is a good movie, with a great message of hope and freedom. The enemy wants to keep us on the inside. Remember that. But do what you have to do, as Andy did, to get out and raise your arms in acknowledgement of the feat you have accomplished once you have done so.