“The Shawshank Redemption” is one of my favorite movies. Incidentally, it is based on a novella by Stephen King, an author I have read widely since I was a teen. The movie transcends the book (not always true, especially for Stephen King stories, many of which have become B-movie horror flicks or made-for-TV series) and is definitely a modern classic that should be on everyone’s list to watch, in my opinion.
To remind you, (yes, there are spoilers here, so if you haven’t yet, go see the movie!) the story follows Andry Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), a young accountant, who is sentenced with life in prison for the death of his wife. His new home: Shawshank prison, a fictional prison in the Stephen King universe (also featured in the recent “Castle Rock” series on Hulu). Shawshank displays the kind of qualities one would expect from a correctional facility excelling in human cruelty: the inmates taunting new prisoners, making bets on which newbie will crack first and goading them with after-hour taunts of “Fresh fish!” (this rambunctious but otherwise innocent game goes horribly awry when, on the night Dufresne arrives, a new prisoner who starts crying is beaten to death by the guards); the resident predator sexually assaulting innocent victims like Dufresne; the warden, played by Bob Gunton, farming out his prisoners to do “public works” projects, for which he gets well-reimbursed with a little something extra on the side; and the warden’s penchant for embezzling money.
While he appears unassuming enough, Dufresne carries himself with a poise that soon catches the attention of others, most especially Red, (played by Morgan Freeman), the guy “who knows how to get things.” When Dufresne and his buddies all conveniently get roof-tanning duties (helped by Red’s ability to provide the guards with extra cigarettes), Dufresne overhears the Captain complaining about owing money to the IRS for an inheritance. Dufresne steps in and, as his compatriots look on in horror, nearly gets thrown off the roof by the explosive captain as he offers to help him out with some good tax advice. For which he only asks that his buddies be allowed to enjoy three beers a piece, because “a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds.”
In turn, Dufresne officially wins over his fellow prisoners, demonstrates to the audience that he is a whole lot more than meets the eye, and soon becomes the unofficial golden goose of the prison establishment, especially of the warden, who exploits Dufresne to set up an extensive embezzlement scheme.
The entire movie is steeped in injustice, and Defresne, who we find out later is actually innocent of the crime he is accused of, is a just another victim of said injustice. So you can’t really blame him for doing the warden’s bidding. It’s abundantly clear what might happen to him if he said “No.” On the bright side, Dufresne uses his brains and gumption to get funding for the prison library. Also, in one amazingly plucky scene, he breaks into the prison control room and plays Mozart opera over the sound system, stopping all the men in their outdoor activities to listen in collective musical ecstasy.
For years, Dufresne helps the warden in his various illegal practices, making him a boatload of money in the process. What the warden doesn’t know is, Dufresne has his own secret plan in the works. The movie comes to an exciting, surprising climax when Dufresne escapes from prison the same day he exposes the warden to the newspapers, and brings the hard hand of law down on him. The warden, sadly, shoots himself before he can be turned over to the authorities.
Dufresne’s prison escape may be the most original escape ever put onto cinema. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Dufresne has spent the last twenty years digging a tunnel. With the use of his rock hammer, an illicit but harmless-looking item he got from his buddy Red, he slowly chisels through the wall, hiding the hole from prison inspections with sexy posters of “It” girls from the time (Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Raquel Welch… This is why the original novella is titled “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). On the night of the escape, Dufresne makes a dramatic display of being upset at the warden, and says things to Red that cause Red to fear that Dufresne is going to take his own life. When Dufresne doesn’t come out of his cell the next morning, that is exactly what Red fears.
Yet quite the opposite has occurred. Dufresne has, in the narrator Red’s words, crawled “to freedom through 500 yards of shit-smelling foul as I can’t even imagine.” He crawls through a drainage pipe that empties outside of the prison. The scene when he triumphantly stares at the sky, his arms out, triumphing in his freedom, as the camera pans above him looking down, is truly glorious.
Dufresne escapes with a boatload of the warden’s embezzled money socked away in secret bank accounts, and a clean record created by his fake identities. Meanwhile, the warden is brought to justice. Dufresne is off to Zihautanejo, and cleverly gives Red the clues to join him when he gets out.
To me, this is the ultimate metaphor for creating your own life, being the master of your destiny regardless of how horrible your circumstances may be. You may feel stuck, you may feel trapped in circumstances you don’t want, yet with conviction, you can work your way to freedom. Even if it takes twenty years, you can be redeemed! This movie shows such a triumphant and awe-inspiring resolution to wrongful conviction.
It also displays a truly unusual hero who, rather than being aggressive or big-talking, is mild-mannered and thoughtful. Dufresne enacts his revenge in a way that couldn’t be better planned, with a sort of time-transcending beauty that is almost as angelic as the opera singers played over the sound system.
Just one little scratch at a time, with your rock hammer, you can dig yourself out of any circumstances. It just requires patience and faith. I love this metaphor and often have thought of it in my own life. The modest yet powerful compounding power of continuous efforts cannot be underestimated!
(Note: this post might be have been more than I could chew, given the constraints of this 365 Day Blogging Project. I spent so much time working on the description of the movie, which being common knowledge is probably the least original part, and short-changed my personal commentary, which is probably what could make this post the most unique. Please forgive me, Oh Gods of Great Movie Commentary! I guess I’m still struggling through a bit of perfectionism. And yet, I publish!).