The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Frank Darabont

Guilt

Story by Stephen King, screenplay by Frank Darabont. 142 minutes, rated R. Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

The first question of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) asks how in the world could this film—full of blasphemy, rancor, obscenity, and violence, though most of the last occurs off-screen—ever find its way onto a list of religiously valuable films (and it ranks first on the IMDB list of 250 most loved films). A similar big question, posed by many reviewers, wondered about just where in the film came the redemption claimed in the title. It’s a stretch for both of these questions, save for three elements. First, the pretty noble protagonist, wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, suffers an unimaginable journey through a hell of rape, violence, and solitude that at last harrows his soul. Second, two remarkable sequences capture the exquisite gifts of ordinary life prisoners in draconian Shawshank penitentiary cannot enjoy. And last, there is, yes, the redemption part, including the most remarkable baptism ever on film, even though God is only implied therein. Writer-director Frank Darabont lays out an archetypal saga of descent into physical and spiritual suffering that ultimately, and very belatedly, brings its very admirable hero to transformative new knowledge of himself and what he (and the world) needs most. All told, warts and all, The Shawshank Redemption offers a near perfect parable of the necessary journey of the soul to new being, the classical Christian scheme of redemption, meaning guilt, contrition, and a new birth that moves the soul from narcissism into love.

The crucible for all of this is a fancy young banker, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), handsome, very smart, self-possessed, independent, thoughtful, cultured, and perhaps with a touch of arrogance. The film begins with Dufresne on trial for the murder of his wife, who was one night shot to death, along with her lover, and it sure looks like the banker did it. In flashback, as Dufresne testifies in his own defense, the camera watches the aggrieved husband in his car drunk with a handgun in his lap. And others saw him too, and soon enough he finds himself delivered for the rest of his life to Shawshank prison, a huge Gothic stone expanse, the very image of a very scary kind of hell (in fact, the abandoned Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, though the interiors were shot on a soundstage).

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And hell it is, a journey to “the land of death’s dark shadow,” as Matthew puts it (4:16 NEB). Andy soon runs a relentlessly predatory, mutilating evil, a totalistic assault on any shred of kindness or human regard. There is the foul Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), who seems the incarnation of every imaginable caricature of every benighted hypocritical Christian whose belief and piety mask ravenous ego, thirst for power, and sadism. As he summarizes for new convicts, “Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me” (14:02). Worse still, if possible, are “the Sisters,” a violent gang that terrorizes and gang rapes defenseless young inmates. The varieties and depth of evil frolic so freely and intensely in Shawshank that there evil seems the first and only reality of all that is.

Into and through this nightmare of evil, an autonomous, self-contained, and unperturbed Andy Dufresne journeys. Andy keeps to himself and amuses himself and seems not really need anyone. In short, he’s very strange, and that grabs the attention of the amiable, laconic lifer Red (Morgan Freeman), master of prison contraband, who becomes Dufresne’s best friend and narrator of what will become the saga of Andy. The former banker’s financial savvy soon wins favor (and protection) from the guards and then the warden, who controls a lucrative fiefdom of graft. And Andy does good as well, finally getting the prison a library and personally tutoring convicts.

Through it all, Andy displays a great relish for the pleasures of being alive. In return for a favor for vicious head guard Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), he seeks a three beers each for his “co-workers” in re-tarring the roof, and the scene {HL 37:23-38:51} makes for a poignant, dead-on meditation on the quiet goodness of being alive in a wondrous creation. Better still is Andy’s stunt of piping over the prison’s public address system {HL 1:07:43-1:10:04} a duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, so enrapturing and, as Red puts it, “so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it” (1:09:35). For the “cons,” it seems a foretaste of heaven, and again Red’s commentary meditates on the profound beauty of living, something that Andy fully savors, even in (or because of) Shawshank.

Clearly, Andy is an admirable and pretty complete human being, and there are hints, but only hints, that much of this comes from a deep measure of Christian commitment: he doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear, and he knows the Bible intimately, once matching the warden in a scripture quoting contest. For all of this, though, unbeknownst to him, not all is well with his soul, as the old hymn has it. It takes the removal of any hope of getting out of Shawshank and two months in the utter darkness of solitary—a long dark night of the soul, to be sure–to understand and confess to Red that while he didn’t pull the trigger, he did by not showing his love drive her to find it elsewhere {HL} . Only upon recognition of his own “violation of the human heart” (Hawthorne) is Andy remorseful and ready for “redemption,” and a glorious one it is.

STILL (2:00:29)
From the long sanitary sewer pipe he spills, exultant, into Shawshank Creek amid flashes of lightning and a downpour of cleansing rain. At last. Tearing off his filthy prison garb and throwing his arms upward in laughter and joy (and maybe gratitude), he is washed clean and ventures into a new life, making sure to do justice along the way by exposing the predations of Warden Norton. It is a rapturous sequence {1:59:31-2:00:34} in which Andy and the world are set aright, at least for a time. And having learned the very hardest way of the dire necessity of caring, he will provide as well for his friend Red and their reunion on the gentle sunlit shores of the Pacific. Ah, paradise.

written by Roy Anker

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