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.