The Shawshank Redemption is one of my top 5 favorite movies (the others, in no particular order, are Gattaca, 12 Angry Men, The Lives of Others, and Wall-E). As such, I felt obliged to defend my taste and the critical satisfaction taken by millions of lay watchers and film critics alike. There are SPOILERS in this post, since I assume that most people have seen the movie.
Let’s start with what Shawshank supposedly does badly. Josh’s main complaint is that the movie is “dishonest”. It does not, for example, realistically portray a prison environment. None of our heroes are depicted as complexly evil, though they all presumably committed serious crimes to land themselves a prison sentence. Prison is seen as a “crappy summer camp” where you can help pass the time by smuggling in smokes, nudies, and rock hammers. Even the laborious task of re-tarring the roof is romanticized as a Twain-esque whitewashing, capped off by enjoying a cold beer in the afternoon sun. Unlike Josh, I don’t fault the movie for being inaccurate with prison life, though I think its subplot of prison sexual abuse was actually quite groundbreaking, and set the stage for grittier examinations in American History X and the HBO series Oz. The movie is a human drama, not merely a prison drama, and as such isn’t intended to be a documentary about the prison environment, the nature of criminals, or the limitations of the parole process. It should be appreciated for introducing into the public imagination topics of prison rape, guard corruption, and institutionalization, not criticized for not making a thorough study of each. Josh indicates in a prior post that he enjoys The Godfather. Yet once again that film only addresses some (romantic) aspects of the mafia, and as much as Shawshank obscures the very real evils of its protagonists/N-agonists. That film is similarly not meant to be an exposé on mafia and society; the mafia is just the foundation for a story about family and loyalty, father and son, revenge, etc.
Josh also answers his own question when he discusses the nature of redemption in the movie. Andy’s sin is not cold-blooded murder, but cold-bloodedness. My favorite line of the movie is during the trial when he calmly rejects the prosecutor’s implication, “since I am innocent of the crime, sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient”. There are no character witnesses because he has no friends, and later, no visitors in prison. He is a banker, not in a profession known for compassion. He is convicted on highly circumstantial evidence because his callous lack of emotion communicated guilt to the jury and viewer alike. For the rest of the film, however, we witness his transformation through his benevolent actions toward others. His broadcasting of the soaring duet from Le nozze di Figaro sets free the souls of his fellow captors, and he gladly suffers the consequences. He enjoys a small smile while watching his friends enjoy cold beers and feel like free men again, while having none himself. He tutors Heywood, and gifts Red a harmonica. We see him display desperate emotion, for the first time, when he realizes there’s a chance he can be exonerated by Heywood’s testimony. At the end, he invites Red to take part in his life after prison and trusts him with his location, highlighting the true friendship they’ve created, not merely once of circumstance and convenience. The thunderstorm scene, though trite, makes clear that Andy has been redeemed for his moral failings. The other angle of the movie is the triumph of human perseverance and hope through dark times. The many subplots serve a double purpose. Andy’s ‘hijinks’ and long-term goal of escape break up the long monotony of prison that threatened to break his spirit; they restore his agency over his happiness, despite the controlled environment of prison. At the same time, they physically lengthen the movie, literally exposing the viewer to the temporal aspect of long-term imprisonment.
Personally, I don’t actually appreciate movies for their artistic or literary beauty and complexity, or rather I don’t often think about such things in my evaluation of movies. I watch movies purely for enjoyment, and appreciate movies that elicit strong emotional responses throughout, and importantly, happiness at the end. The artistic interpretation of a film can explain why I feel a film is great, but can’t lessen or cheapen the original sublime pleasure I took from it. One thing I enjoyed particularly about Shawshank was how perfectly it exacted justice in punishing the evil characters, in a manner akin to The Count of Monte Cristo from which it certainly drew no small measure of inspiration. Boggs’ punishment was just as violent and brutal as his physical abuses of others. Hadley abused his power over prisoners, and so he was arrested by someone with more power than he, to be put in the same population that he had once terrorized. The Warden’s crime was financial, so Andy took away his money and his livelihood. As satisfied as I was by the appropriate vengeance, I was just as happy by the complete triumph of the good. There was no crap “literary” or “artistic” twist where Andy is slightly foiled, or Red still hangs himself, or Red doesn’t find Andy in Mexico, though I feared there might be. When the good guys needed to win, when the audience wanted them to win, they won completely, without the bitter taste of some bullshit half-victory because the writer/director thought it would be more meaningful and beautiful that way. The viewer wants to feel good after watching a movie, and in successfully fulfilling that all-too-often overlooked purpose, The Shawshank Redemption was a masterpiece.