The Shawshank Redemption is a Bad Movie

OK, not really, but it is a much worse movie than people think. In particular, there’s a certain subset of the population (men (bros?) between the ages of 12 and 40) that thinks it’s one of the best movies ever made; in reality, it’s a solidly good, well-executed movie rather than a great one. The tears that it unleashes represent the melodrama of a Remember the Titans or a Stepmom rather than the catharsis of Terms of Endearment or Wall-E (yup, the characters in Shawshank are less true to humanity than two non-verbal robots).

I might as well start with what the movie does well. I’ve made this post deliberately inflamatory, but I recognize that as a matter of formal craft, Shawshank is quite well designed and executed. It has an engaging mystery (who is Andy Dufresne and did he kill his wife?) to draw the viewer into the plot. It boasts an appealing narrator (Red) with whom the viewer identifies.  It never acts ham-fisted when dealing with its easily caricatured subject of the woes of prison life. Most important to the success of the movie is its handling of hope amidst despair. “Get busy living or get busy dying” is Dufresne’s most famous line, and the major mystery at the core of his character is how he can steadfastly remain optimistic and unbeaten amidst the sexual abuse and official exploitation he suffers in prison.

The movie is also very emotionally accessible to the viewer due to the clear heroes and villains it establishes (I’d give a list of each, but it’s so obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie that I won’t bother). And here lies the problem I have with Shawshank: it’s a fundamentally dishonest movie. It exploits the social stigma of prisoners to create its emotional impact but then unrealistically represents the characters we meet as essentially saintly. It’s a movie ostensibly about forgiveness where the main character has nothing about which to be forgiven.

Indeed, the very title of The Shawshank Redemption is a misnomer: Andy Dufresne is never redeemed of the moral guilt of killing his wife; he didn’t do it in the first place. Perhaps the title refers to Red, who proxies for the viewer and actually did kill someone. Unfortunately, Red also fails to undergo real moral development during the film. By the time we meet him, Red is no longer “the young stupid kid who committed that terrible crime.” He is a cautious, respected, and, most of all, savvy figure in prison. Throughout The Shawshank Redemption, Red never once does anything dumb or reckless; never once shows his temper or acts maliciously or cruelly. In fact, he behaves like the exact opposite of a man who would kill out of anger or stupidity. While it’s true that Red’s demeanor towards the various parole boards changes over the course of the movie, there’s no indication that this reflects some inner moral acceptance on Red’s part; personally, I believe he regretted his murder from the very moment we see him in the movie, but either way, his interaction with the parole board just speaks to the futility of the parole process rather than to his emerging regret (which we never see otherwise).

The one other plausible meaning of the title that I could think of is that Andy, while not guilty of murder, is in fact guilty of being cold and antisocial (which we see at the beginning of the movie with his dispassionate turn on the witness stand). His suffering redeems him of this flaw, forcing him to become part of a prison family, which he nurtures and assists in a most selfless way. I think the movie does attempt to do this, but using Andy as an enigma to lure the audience in contradicts this purpose because it sacrifices our ability to see his perspective. We never see his internal state and only observe his emotions through Red’s eyes. Red is a completely unreliable narrator, since his own understanding of Andy (for the first ten or so years of their relationship) is perhaps even more obscured than our own. Andy doesn’t talk much and indeed is something of a cipher (this is part of the reason the movie works more as an allegory than as a depiction of real life). Our inability to understand any change in Andy from his own perspective dooms any message the movie contains about his arc to superficiality and guesswork on our part.

The title matters because the movie draws its emotional power from this idea of redemption or change. Without such an arc, Shawshank is just a movie about an elaborate means for escaping from prison (and the hijinks that ensue in the meantime). I describe the misfortunes that befall Dufresne as hijinks because without meaningful internal conflict, they just become external contrivances meant to prolong the movie. Since the various characters are so clearly good or evil, there’s not much interesting in an artistic sense about (say) Andy’s fight with the warden if it doesn’t affect his own arc.

Finally, Shawshank also draws its impact on the viewer from the fact that it’s set in prison, and this is the other major way I find the movie dishonest. A realistic depiction of prison would include bad people among its cast of characters (I don’t count Boggs and the Sisters; they’re monsters who fill the same role in Shawshank as the velociraptors occupy in Jurassic Park). Shawshank presents prison as sort of a really crappy summer camp: the activities suck, and there are a lot of terrible things that can happen to you, but if you make the right group of friends (i.e. not the violent rapists), you’ll be ok. In order to be a reasonably honest depiction of prison, I don’t think that all of Andy’s social group needs to be made up of unrelentingly awful people, but I do think at the very least they should either struggle with rehabilitation from their past crimes (accepting guilt or lying to themselves etc.) or they should be depicted in some way that demonstrates their criminality. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which has a fairly similar structure to Shawshank but is about crazy people instead of criminals) does a great job with this: it’s crazy people are actually depicted as crazy, which actually enhances our understanding of Nurse Ratchet’s oppression and grants them greater dignity as human beings.

Ultimately, if Shawshank were a movie set in a POW camp, where the prisoners were blameless for their plight and the lines between good and evil were much clearer, it wouldn’t have nearly the emotional force of the real film. Shawshank’s draws its strength from our attitudes towards prison and prisoners, but it then betrays the truth of its setting by setting up a falsely optimistic worldview where none of the characters are really guilty and their only task is to fight against an undeserved oppression. This is a good artifice but not good art. I’d say it’s a good movie; I certainly enjoyed watching it, and others do too. But it’s not an accurate representation of human life, and its cinematic power derives from the very artistic dishonesty and deceit that render it of minimal value as a depiction of human life.

29 thoughts on “The Shawshank Redemption is a Bad Movie

  1. Oh my goodness, thank you, I completely agree. I have to write a paper about this movie and was looking for things like character arc and forgiveness/redemption in it, but I couldn’t come up with anything. No wonder–it’s not there.

  2. I just completely agree. It is a flat and boring movie – and the mystery and hope you tank about – I dont even understand, the plot was clear from the very beginning, was this some king of Monte Christo adaptation? Awful movie 1/10

    • Actually the movie mentions The Count of Monte Cristo, I didn’t get it either. But Stephen King always adapts things by making them really cheesy and manipulative, and then tacking on a cheap deus ex machina ending.

  3. Although your perspective has some validity, I disagree on the argument that the characters are flat. Andy is relatable in that the audience knows of his innocence and since he is a genius of some sort it is more of a twist ending rather than something you didn’t see coming because the character development is flawed. As well, his inmates are quite realistic; at the beginning they are portrayed as crude and unforgiving (betting on who will cave in first, egging on a beating) but they learn to trust and make friends over time.

    • Thanks for your comment, Emma! I’ve always felt the prisoners were unrealistic because people who go to prison often have issues that can’t be solved simply by camaraderie and exposure to others (why are they mean at the beginning and not mean at the end, presumably their lives don’t revolve around Andy Dufresne?). I just get the sense that the prisoners are being used as props to Andy’s moral development rather than being treated as individuals on their own.

    • Aka the cliche of the Cutthroat with the heart of gold. And of course Andy is a Mary Sue who escapes by Deus Ex Machina at the end. He’s a banker, but somehow becomes an expert in Securities fraud which he supposedly had never done. And the movie is supposed to be about Redemption for his unfeeling character that drove his wife into the arms of another man, but we don’t see that either since he never reveals himself other than building a library and mentoring the victim Tommy. Zootopia had a more believable plot. But obviously it never claimed to be realistic.

  4. A lot of the guys at school have said to me to watch the movie since it is a classic and that it is the highest rated movie on iMDb. So I watched it thinking it was going to be really good, but it isn’t. The article above echoes my thoughts exactly. I haven’t read the book yet, and I hope it will be better than the film.

    I read The Green Mile by Stephen King, the author of The Shawshank Redemption, and I watched the movie, with the same name, after. Although it doesn’t follow the plot of the book precisely, it is still an excellent movie. I would recommend it to you guys.

  5. It was an idiotic short story, and a stupid movie. All of Steven King’s stories are written for nerdy teenagers. The way people get revenge or win in any situation is the type of way a sheltered geek with no real experience would think up, then not even bother to consider if it has faults. Yeah, he “outsmarts” the mean old strong, “popular” guys! The nerd wins again! I mean, he digs a tunnel behind a poster? That right there is completely idiotic enough to invalidate ALL of this movie. What sort of moronic prison system has dozens of guards and a warden all too stupid to look behind a poster?

    • I can’t tell you how much I love this answer, i.e. how geek teens fantasize about outsmarting everyone. Andy was a Mary Sue, to the max, and the movie was typical Stephen King sci-fi.
      Seriously, a PRISON built of weak limestone, rather than just plain concrete, like all prisons? DEUS EX MACHINA! Andy didn’t escape by a tunnel– he jumped through a hole in the plot, after making the audience feel SORRY for him.
      Stephen King is just plain dishonest; if he made “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” McMurphy would have escaped with the Chief, and Nurse Ratched would have killed herself.
      Complete dramatic dishonesty and moral cowardice.

      • And here I have to reply top Sarah again, I love the fact you act like everyone on the other side is full of smug, while you show nothing but smugness.

        Well,if all you had was speed, wouldn’t you dream of out speeding everyone? Wouldn’t you fantasize about how your talent could somehow prove much more powerful then it is now? Also, please learn what a Mary Sue is before you start throwing tropes around. Andy’s character would dismiss that accusation to start, and you would need some hard evidence to show this character to be a Mary Sue.

        Also,this isn’t sci-fi. Unless you would like to explain where the science fiction was in this piece of fiction.

        Also there are real world examples of limestone prisons, so once again, not far fetched. Also when it was built, which was at least prior to 1905, when Brooks got there, it might have been cheaper or easier to not make it out of concrete.

        Once again, it is not a Deus Ex machina. In order for it to be that, we would have to have no idea he had the rock hammer, no idea he knew anything about geology, and no idea that he could easily carve his own name into the wall. All three of those things we knew. This is an example of clever story telling, not Deus Ex.

        As I explained above he did not jump through some magical plot hole, it was well hidden subtext within the material. You had everything there to guess how he escaped, it just seemed as unlikely to you as it did to everyone else, which is why no one ever realized it was happening.

        Also you once again commit a fallacy of association. Regardless of how good or bad his other works are or are not, does not affect Shawshank at all.

      • Kurotaro yes, it’s called plot contrivance. The prison in which the movie was filmed did not have Paper Walls, sorry. They were written in by the author specifically in order for the Mary Sue main character to escape, and yes I do know what a Mary Sue is in all its various forms, unlike you who thinks it has a glaring exterior. Andy was a sympathy Sue, where he was treated so unfairly that the audience felt sorry for him and so did everyone else until even the sadistic guards crippled his Tormentor… and the so-called tax loophole was also a deus ex machina that doesn’t exist in real life, in reality Hadley would have to pay tax on The Inheritance but his wife would not have to pay tax on the gift, and so she would obviously use the money to leave an abusive person like him. So then Hadley would come back and make Andy suffered for it. If you want to brown-nose Stephen King, do it somewhere else but don’t give me any crap about it.

    • The short story has its own problems, and is quite different from the film adaptation, to bring it up does not help your argument here. Out of many stories of his that I have read, you would not call the context or characters a situation for nerds. However nice pointless insults. Also, most people are not saying that it does not have faults, many of them have been pointed out over the years, it is just that for many the positive parts greatly outweigh the negative.

      Mean, old, strong. Your words to describe the villains. Strong and mean for Boggs? Sure. Old and mean for the Warden? Sure. However the Warden is far from strong. Unless you mean by his position in life, which would make him more of a nerd in this context. Especially considering he is not extremely successful nor does he show any outward feats of strength combined with a more typical academic look. So your own argument begins to refute itself.

      Yes, he dug a hole. How is that completely idiotic? Clearly no one thought it was even a possibility, so why would they check? Alongside that his rock hammer was never found, nor was there any reason ever, to suspect him of doing something to escape. So you once again refute yourself. And finally, the movie took place much, much earlier, meaning many of today’s prison safeguards did not exist.

  6. “It never acts ham-fisted when dealing with its easily caricatured subject of the woes of prison life. ”

    Uh…. HUH? In the first few minutes of the film, a prisoner is beaten brutally beaten to death by sadistic prison-guards– who, we learn, routinely murder prisoners at whim. The film does everything possible to make the audience feel sorry for Andy, no matter how unrealistic– like Boggs fearing arrest for possible tax-evasion, but not multiple counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy etc.
    And of course the movie ends by deus ex machina, like Andy escaping without a trace, magically obtaining all the money from the bank to an escaped murderer (whose face would normally be on every “WANTED” poster in the state), and the warden shooting himself, and Boggs going magically to prison– rather than simply Andy being tracked down, and the Warden simply blaming everything on the deceptive tricks of an escaped murderer.
    That’s completely dishonest…. and sadly it’s the cheap, corny dishonest style that’s typical of Stephen King; the only thing missing was the pig’s blood dumped on Andy, and his using his psychic powers to get revenge.

      • The fact that she throws around trope names that don’t fit, and moves to fallacies shortly after should make you doubt what she says.

    • I intended to first comment upon the article pointing out its flaws, but upon reading the comments I found this. So I guess I will start here.

      While the movie does portray Andy as the victim of a cruel system, you also have to understand that in those times some prisons were worse then the depiction. So ham-fisted? No. It would have made more of the people of the prison seem incapable of caring, which several guards show throughout the movie.

      While he talked about possible arrest if he avoided taxes, which is a much harder crime to cover up, he was not afraid of arrest because his current crimes had carried on for years. Even the Warden enabled him.

      Please describe this magical Deus-ex machina, because as far as I saw, the movie showed that Andy could carve the wall, meaning its an unlikely case, but not an out of the blue one.

      You say his face would be on every wanted poster in the state, about 10-15 minutes after they found him missing, in 1956. He not only looked the part of a wealthy man, he could act the part. Combine that with all of the necessary documents, and the hours it would take to question guards, find the hole, call police, wait for police to arrive, set up a search party, perform the search, etc., and you have a massive window for him to escape. Combine that with the fact the Warden had no idea he had taken the logs, until at least several hours later that day, or the next day, they had no reason to suspect him of having any resources.

      The Warden shot himself as a way of escaping prison and punishment for his crimes, a theme to the movie you might say, and Boggs was finally paying for his crimes. It is not surprising for him to be arrested considering the scope of the story, even if he was found innocent.

      You also state again, that his capture would have been simple,which shows you neither know nor understand how these things work today, let alone in 1956. So please stop acting like its the praisers of this movie who are the smarmy ones, you are doing the same for a different team.

      He also could not have simply blamed all that away on a criminal, Boggs, maybe, but the warden had sunk his own ship.

      Finally, I will not speak on any other movie adaptation or book of Stephen King’s in relation, as whether they are good or bad has no relation to this. It is a fallacy of association that you perform at the end of your comment. So maybe instead of criticizing a movie you dislike, and throwing around things that hold about as much weight as a wet napkin, you could just display that you disliked something. Instead of throwing around terrible reasoning.

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  8. I watched this movie yesterday for the first time in years, and found this post by trying to find decent reviews of the film. Completely agree – it’s not a bad movie, but it’s not a great one at all – there’s something fairly bland about it, it’s overly sentimental (agree completely about its dishonesty) and feels like a competent TV movie.
    There’s a few reasons it’s so highly rated I think. It’s a fairly accessible and watchable movie, compared to something like say, The Great Escape, which people who grew up in the 80s and 90s (i.e. Shawshank’s biggest fans) would find dated and slow. It’s simple enough for general audiences but feels deep enough if you don’t really think about it too. It’s also often one of the first adult focused, non-blockbuster movies most teenagers see, as well as the fact that it’s on TV constantly – so people find it familiar and carry it with them. It’s a great movie if you’ve not seen many movies. Also unlike say, Forest Gump, which I’d say is a really similar kind of movie, Shawshank didn’t win any Oscars, so there was never any backlash against it.
    Good review though!

  9. Finally! After replying to some of your commentors, who showed that they don’t understand basic tropes or fallacies, I can finally reply to this article, which is a lot better then the content of the comments, go figure.

    I’m glad you started with what you liked about the movie, a good sign that you are not some jaded person who will not consider another view point. I will agree here mostly with you, sometimes it does go a little overboard, mainly Hadley’s extreme aggressiveness and lack of empathy. Otherwise they present the more broken prison systems of early 20th century America quite well.

    This next part is where I start to disagree with you. While the villains and heroes are clearly shown, other then Andy who could have been a murderer, they do not oversimplify the majority of the population to be good. We see a limited selection of them, and the more saintly characters are Brooks, who is old, and Redd who feels guilt and remorse for his actions. We see the other characters speak about things they don’t understand, show themselves quick to anger, and do many other things that does not leave the same saintly vibe we get from the big 3(Redd, Brooks, Andy). The movie focused mainly upon those 3 in the saintly aspect, which I would argue shows that not all criminals are bad. Also, generally criminals do bad things, so do they need to demonstrate that? It seems a safe assumption. Especially since such a scene would have made the movie even longer. The forgiveness aspect can apply to the other characters, however it can also apply to Andy himself. As he showed that he blamed himself for his wife’s death even if he was not the direct cause. So his ability to forgive himself meets that requirement.

    i would have to disagree that the title is a misnomer. Not only do we see Andy redeem himself emotionally, as I stated in the paragraph above, we see other characters undergo redemption. Such as Tommy redeeming himself of a life of crime and earning hid diploma.

    I would agree that Redd is supposed to represent the audience, however we are seeing through the eyes of an already old con. He has twenty years under his belt by the time Andy shows up. Not to mention for the most part his character shows a lack of hope throughout the movie. So his redemption, is rejecting what Brooks taught, to follow a path that he did not think was there before.

    I agree that Andy being antisocial could be a part of the redemption, I would just argue it was more about Andy redeeming himself from his emotions. Although him being distant and antisocial falls into that.
    I also agree that more insight into Andy would have deepened the character, however we have some parts that allow us to flesh out his character. Such as him blaming himself later for his wife’s death through his distance. This shows that he has harbored feeling of regret about his wife even if he was not at fault. Its some of the little things where Andy’s character really shines through.

    I would disagree here that the characters are clearly good/bad. Only a handful of characters are presented in a very good or bad light. The other prisoner friends, are not shown in much light one way or the other. They do however show themselves to be human. I would also argue that those “hijinks” were there to show why someone can become institutionalized. To show that prison life is a dull and repetitive experience. I would also say that Andy’s actions do affect his own ark through the story. Examples include his solitary confinement as a punishment, his initial meeting of Boggs, etc.

    I highly disagree with saying that the movie presents prison as a “crappy summer camp”. The movie shows us bad characters, such as Boggs. We also hear about the rapists from the Warden. Not to mention these are criminals, it is expected for the most part that they do bad things. That does not need to be shown, the other characters are not the point of the story. Not to mention even with the “right group of friends” Andy still experiences bad things. I would argue that this shows that you can never trust something bad to not happen. I disagree that the side characters need to be shown as criminals. We already know they are criminals. Some good, some bad. We don’t need to spend time showing things that most people already expect. I have never seen Cuckoo’s Nest, so I won’t talk on that subject.

    I disagree about the POW point. I believe if presented right you could still have an emotional impact.Not to mention if we believe Andy to be innocent, then we could assume that of many of the other criminal. Aka, there by no fault of their own.

    You accuse the film of not showing us how bad the criminal friends are, then in the final paragraph blow it into a claim that they represent everybody as innocent. They never do that. Redd feels guilt,and the other characters never sit around pretending they don’t deserve to be there. If you want to try to make such a bold claim, you need to back that up with some solid reasoning or facts. I also completely disagree with your closing statements, this movie shows different parts of humanity at different times, and the fact that you accuse it so harshly of deceit and dishonesty while backing that up with your previous weak premises, shows that you lack a good comprehension or knowledge of the material you are criticizing.

  10. Stephen King would never write an honest story if his life depended on it. He just creates a “sympathy Sue” with caricatured villains and a deus ex machina ending. And everyone acts like it’s genius– just like they did with Titanic, which was equally cheesy. If that’s genius, then it’s “E equals MC stupid.”

  11. The Shawshank Redemption ranks with “Titanic,” as a cheap caricatured manipulative melodrama in the finest tradition of Hollywood cheese, under a paper thin facade of gritty “realism” and the hypnotic voice of Morgan Freeman narration.
    In this capacity, the main character, Andy Dufresne, is first portrayed as an Everyman type character, but the movie becomes a slow cooking cauldron of “frog soup” that reveals him to be a trope known as a “Sympathy Sue,” for which Stephen King is sadly infamous in giving normal characters super-powers by which they become deus ex machina.
    An example includes the manner in which Andy acquires skills in massive fraud that would shock Bernie Madoff, as well as prison that would shock Houdini, and the audience accepts it simply because it sympathizes with the so called “Everyman” due to his ridiculously overblown abuser… including a prison guard engaging in a murder conspiracy despite fearing possible tax fraud. Even Andy’s “tax loophole” showing in the film, was a deus ex machina because in reality Hadley would not be exempt from paying taxes on The Inheritance, but only his wife would be exempt from paying taxes on the gift… and then it’s likely she would have to use the money to leave him while had we had to pay the taxes anyway, and Hadley would have come back and made Andy suffer for it.
    However in the fantasy world of Stephen King, realities do not occur except to further the plot, and so the audience is duped into wishful thinking that cheats the so-called realism which an actual person would face in such a situation.

  12. I actually really love this movie, but this is a flat out terrific essay. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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