Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review: The Shawshank Redemption

Directed by Frank Darabont. 1994.

The Shawshank Redemption could easily have been a banal exercise in politically correct finger-wagging or a hackneyed parable about hope. Two features elevate Shawshank, first is its intense focus on its characters; not simply their current feelings, but their natures, the men they were and who they came to be, and their journey of self-understanding. The film could have gone astray into the territory of police procedurals, legal dramas, or documentary-style exposé. Indeed, the prison’s corruption, Red’s parole denials, and the set-up that led Andy into prison are not central elements the film’s theme. Second is Shawshank does not venture to make foolish generalizations about prisons, prison life, prisoners, “the system” or anything else. Shawshank is about these men and their personal journeys.

It is actually worth noting at greater length where this film does not go wrong, given how many directions in which it could easily have veered and how many other films take those tired paths. First, the film is not mindlessly and vaguely "anti-prison." Shawshank Prison is indeed a dehumanizing place but not on account of some abstract sense of injustice but rather on account of the criminals and the abuses of its authoritarian warden and his right-hand, neither of whom represent the law but rather simple force. The warden is happy to ignore heinous acts, so long as he benefits and the prison is run well. He even uses such violence, violence that he permits, as a threat against Andy. Likewise the film is not foolishly "anti-law" either. You see when Red’s case comes up for review, he is not subjected to an objectively understandable law or criterion, but rather the whims of the review board. Consider Red’s response when asked by the parole board if he thinks he has been “rehabilitated:”
MAN #1
Shall I repeat the question?

I heard you. Rehabilitated. Let's see now. You know, come to think of it, I have no idea what that means. I know what you think it means. Me, I think it's a made-up word, a politician's word. A word so young fellas like you can wear a suit and tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?

MAN #2
Well. . . are you?

Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was...stupid kid who did that terrible crime. . . wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that. . . Rehabilitated? That's a bullshit word, so you just go on ahead and stamp that form there, sonny, and stop wasting my damn time. Truth is, I don't give a shit.
Consider the honesty of this scene for a moment. Red does not shy away from referring to his act as a terrible crime, nor does he try to explain that he should be freed by offering excuses. He knows he deserves to be in jail, but he refuses to continue play the political game with the parole board, who themselves have no definition of “rehabilitated.” Is it supposed to mean he is sorry, that he would not do it again, that he is a “normal” person now? Why should he be, what did he do, or what is prison expected to do to him, that would make him so? What is the standard for “rehabilitation?” The definition of the word is up to their whims.

Let us now move on to what Shawshank does well. We said above the prison was a dehumanizing place, first on account of the hard criminals and second on account the corrupt officials. What Andy brings to the prison is something wholly lacking there: a sense of the sacredness of the individual, a sacredness that can only be marred by choice and not force, a sentiment reflected in efforts great and small done over long periods of time. It is something rejected by the criminals when they were free men, something suppressed by the warden, and thus something only an innocent man could have brought to Shawshank. The first example is requesting a couple of beers for his “coworkers” when they roof a nearby factory in outdoor detail. Red aptly summarizes the significance of Andy’s deed:
You could argue he'd done it to curry favor with the guards. Or maybe make a few friends among us cons. Me, I think he did it just to feel normal again. . . if only for a short while.
Sure they are prisoners and they are not free, nor does Andy argue they should be, but they need to remember the significance of the concept. They cannot forget it, as freedom or lack thereof defines their experiences. What is significant but unspoken about this scene, though, is that Andy stays apart from them. He does not enjoy the beers with his coworkers and his experience on the roof is a strictly personal one. Gradually, though, Andy’s relationships with his fellow inmates, especially Red, begin to define his life there. For example, though he maintains personal projects like shaping his chess pieces from stones, they are stones gathered by his friends as a little welcome back present when he is beaten by a group of inmates. Andy’s life is gradually having the threads of others’ woven in. Similarly, after his relentless requesting for library funds pays off and the state sends him some money and donated books and records, Andy risks much to share some of that with everyone in the prison.

The scene opens with a wonderful contrast: the lame guard, a free man, condescends to read Jughead of his own free will, while Andy, a prisoner, risks his personal safety not simply to hear but to share Mozart. This particular piece of music, a duet from Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro, is particularly significant here. While Red says he hopes they were singing about something too beautiful for words, the significance is how they are singing the piece. Neither voice in the piece is singing anything intelligible on her own, but rather one must piece together both parts to understand what they are saying. Likewise the oboe is essentially an equal third partner to the human voices. On the one hand this is quite simply a beautiful piece of music Andy shares with the inmates of Shawshank, and even as such the act symbolizes his growing ability to act with his emotions and engage more intimately with others. The very act of the inmates listening to the music at the same time, that very shared experience, is significant on these terms. This piece of music, though, itself is especially appropriate for its use in the film. That fact, and the unique way we experience music (as we discussed in light of Bergman and Solaris), accounts for the tremendous power of this scene.

After spending time in silent, dark, solitary for his stunt, Andy shares his thoughts on music and the sacredness of the individual with Red and his circle of friendly inmates:
ANDY (taps his heart, his head)
The music was here. . . and here. That's the one thing they can't confiscate, not ever. That's the beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt that way about music, Red?

Played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't make much sense on the inside.

Here's where it makes most sense. We need it so we don't forget.


That there are things in this world not carved out of gray stone. That there's a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.

Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a man insane. It's got no place here. Better get used to the idea.
Later, Andy acquires a harmonica for Red, again emphasizing how Andy is trying to get Red to experience the joy he knows through music. That Red, first staring at the instrument in his dark cell before bed, only gives it a toot is not a symbol of failure, but rather that he has grown to understand its significance, both coming from Andy, and coming from Andy as his friend, and he is not emotionally ready to play yet. This gift represents perhaps the height of what Andy has learned about himself, his emotions and demeanor, and living with others. His last conversation with Red makes the development explicit:
My wife used to say I'm a hard man to know. Like a closed book. Complained about it all the time. She was beautiful. I loved her. But I guess I couldn't show it enough. I killed her, Red. I didn't pull the trigger. But I drove her away. That's why she died. Because of me, the way I am.

That don't make you a murderer. Bad husband, maybe. Feel bad about it if you want. But you didn't pull the trigger.

No. I didn't. Someone else did, and I wound up here. Bad luck, I guess.

Bad luck? Jesus.

It floats around. Has to land on somebody. Say a storm comes through. Some folks sit in their living rooms and enjoy the rain. The house next door gets torn out of the ground and smashed flat. It was my turn, that's all. I was in the path of the tornado. I just had no idea the storm would go on as long as it has.
Like Red’s statement before the parole board, Andy is not filled with bitterness toward “the system” or anger towards his cheating wife or even the man who framed him, but regret for the man he was when he was free. He regrets that he was free but imprisoned anyway, albeit unknowingly and in a different way. As such, what he brought to Shawshank and what he did and learned when he was there enabled his redemption. What Andy brought was something Red had lost before he entered prison also, just as what Andy learned was something he had missed in life outside Shawshank. Indeed it is their friendship that becomes the touchstone of the movie and that which grows alongside their personal developments, in fact it enables them.
Those of us who knew him best talk about him often. I swear, the stuff he pulled. It always makes us laugh. Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are just too bright. . . and when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. . . but still, the place you live is that much more drab and empty that they're gone.
Their reconciliation at the end achieves its weight not just from their many years together at Shawshank, but from a certain gratefulness that they should have met in the first place; that Andy Dufresne, a stolid banker who wrongfully went to jail, should have met someone there he could care about, and that Ellis Redding, a dumb kid who committed a terrible crime, should have gone to jail and had his soul reawakened by the imperturbable Andy Dufresne. 

Yet as Andy says of the storm above, need his redemption have gone on so long? Indeed the scenes of Shawshank roll by as do the years at the prison and we acutely feel the passage of time. One of Red’s sayings towards the end of the film, "get busy living or get busy dying," has the sense and appeal of a bromide, but is it not true? How different was Andy’s life inside prison from his old life outside in terms of his happiness? Andy's journey was one of self-discovery, as was Red's; their delays in starting that journey greatly cost them. True probably most people are not introspective by nature, but thinking of Andy and Red, perhaps we should not fritter away our free lives by not first stopping reflect. Perhaps, then, Red’s saying would have more weight if we included the above concept of introspection, which would leave us with something not dissimilar from, “the unexamined life is not worth living."

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