The Shawshank Redemption

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"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies."

Loosely based on a short story by Stephen King, 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption', Frank Darabont's 1994 movie didn't exactly smash box office records, but when it went out on home release it became something of a cult classic, and it's not hard to see why. There's something deliriously satisfying about the way it ends; I must have watched the film ten times (including once at a Secret Cinema event, back when it really was secret) and it never fails to put a smile on my face.

The Story

Narrated by Ellis 'Red' Redding, a jaded lifer and prison fixer at Shawshank penitentiary, the story tells of Red's friendship with Andy Dufresne, a banker wrongly sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover. Initially, Red is convinced that 'new fish' Andy won't last the night, but his resilience is only the first surprise. Andy and Red's unlikely friendship begins after Andy asks Red to get him a rock hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster. Red is intrigued by Andy's cool, seemingly unflappable demeanour, a demeanour that is tested to the extreme over the coming years as he's continually raped by a sinister bunch known as the sisters. But gradually, Andy's head for numbers gets him noticed by prison staff, including the ostensibly god-fearing but deeply crooked warden, and he finds his financial advice makes him indispensable to the powers that be at Shawshank. Gradually, the sisters are 'dealt with' by the wardens and Andy puts his new found privilege to use by getting a new library installed for the inmates. Andy's only seeming wobble comes after a young man, Tommy, whom Andy has helped to pass his SATs, is murdered after it's revealed he has met the real killer of Andy's wife and could potentially get him released. Realising that he could lose his numbers man, the warden shoots Tommy on the pretence that he was trying to escape. Shortly after, Andy and Red have a conversation where the latter seems uncharacteristically agitated and his talk of freedom makes Red unnerved. That night, a storm rages and Red fears that Andy will be found dead in the morning. It looks as if his fear will be realised when Andy doesn't answer his roll call. But when the guards open Andy's cell, he is nowhere to be found.Andy has escaped; It turns out that over the previous almost-twenty years, he has patiently chipped a hole in his cell wall, obscured by a series of posters, and has used the cover of the storm so that no one hears him. Before Andy flees the country, he makes sure that the warden's crimes are exposed, and as the police rush to his office, he commits suicide. Some time later, Red is paroled, and he makes his way to a spot that Andy mentioned in their final conversation. He finds money and  a letter from Andy, and the general public learn how to pronounce the word 'Zihuatanejo', the Mexican beach that Andy now calls home. With nothing to lose, Red risks his parole to flee the country and join his friend. 

Hope In the Shawshank Redemption

So who exactly is redeemed in this story? It's not Andy, who never loses hope, even when life is at its most cruel inside the prison walls: It's Red, who has spent most of his life behind bars and for whom hope is a frivolity, and a dangerous one at that. "I don't think you ought to be doing this to yourself, Andy," Red says, when Andy talks about wanting to see the Pacific Ocean. "This is just shitty pipe dreams."

Throughout the film, we see how Red's view of life is always the most cynical. He bets two packets of cigarettes on the night of Andy's arrival that he will be the first one to break. He's surprised that what he sees as his canny knack for seeing the weakness in people is proved wrong. Andy's indomitable spirit is what fuels their friendship. And Red is forced to admire the same spirit that gets libraries built and friendships fostered when the rest of them can barely see past their menial prison jobs. A turning point for Red comes after Andy locks himself in the prison office to play Mozart over the loudspeaker, bringing the whole prison to a rapturous standstill. Andy is given time in solitary for this transgression, but announces to the others on his return that it wasn't so hard because he had 'Mr Mozart' to keep him company. Red, meanwhile, is stirred for the first time by something almost indescribable. " It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage" he recalls "and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."

And it's this spirit that keeps Red going, even upon his release. Like former inmate Brooks before him, Red's parole involves working at a supermarket bagging groceries and returning each night to a bare apartment. But the freedom had proved too much for the institutionalised Brooks before him. He took his own life after scratching the words 'Brooks was here' into the beam from which he hung himself. Before Red breaks parole and flees the country, he scratches 'so was Red' into the wood, insinuating that he could easily have suffered the same fate, but refuses. For the freedom that they all seek isn't merely life outside the prison walls, but freedom from the prisons of their own spirits. Red's spirit had been crushed long ago, but it's through Andy that he finds a glimmer of hope once again. 

 

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