I’ve just watched the latter half of Shawshank Redemptionfor the third time in about two weeks. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch it. I expect film school, drama, and even classics students to be studying it far into the future. But that’s not my point. Rather, this time I got to thinking about why I like the movie so much. I’m going to go into that here, so spoiler alert. You have been warned.
Now, full disclosure, I haven’t read Stephen King’s novella. Everything I’m about to say below is based on the movie. Any comments that bring in anything from King’s novella as rebuttal or evidence or anything like that will be met with a blunt reply saying it is irrelevant. The movie diverges some from the original and that’s enough to make the book mostly useless for analyzing the movie.
Now, on with the analysis.
First, the casting is perfect. Robbins gives a brilliant performance as Andy Dufresne, our protagonist. Morgan Freeman also demonstrates how he became The Definitive Narrator as he turns in a masterful performance of his own as Red, the secondary protagonist and viewpoint character. The remaining characters of any import to the story (the warden, Hadley, and the notable group of inmates that Andy mostly associates with) are also well cast with the actors turning in solid performances. Combine that with the direction, editing, and the script itself and you get what I can only describe as a masterpiece. The movie looks amazing. And sounds amazing. And the pacing is nigh on perfect. Of course, all this is in my not so humble opinion.
You might argue with my assertion above that Red is not the primary protagonist. I submit that he’s actually telling us Andy’s story and the events he recounts all revolve around what Andy does, which makes Andy the true focus of the story. However, the choice of having Red tell us the story instead of having it from Andy’s point of view is one of the things that makes the movie work so well. It’s a bit like how Doctor Watson tells us the stories about Sherlock Holmes. By doing this, we have a point of view character that cannot be expected to know the brilliant plan (or plans within plans) of the protagonist, and, thus, we have a reasonable device for maintaining suspense. However, this is done much better in Shawshank Redemption than in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Now, on with a few questions that came to mind while watching.
Is the level of corruption portrayed at the prison plausible?
This is an important point because the rest of the movie hinges on it. Could the level of corruption shown in Shawshank really happen? I think, possibly, yes.
First, this is set in the 1950s and 1960s. There would have been much less oversight over something like a prison. As long as prisoners went in, mostly survived their stay (for shorter sentences) and mostly died of naturalish causes with relatively few “shot trying to escape”, and as long as the budget was maintained, very few people would really care what went on there. Prisons are an out of sight out of mind type thing. Nobody even thinks about them if they don’t have to.
Also, what the warden was up to was relatively low key (prison labour racket) and with Dufresne serving as an expert to launder the proceeds, it was much less likely he would slip up at any point. Basically, if you were getting cheaper labour for your project, you weren’t going to talk. The other contractors weren’t going to be able to prove anything when they didn’t win the contracts. And, really, who cares about prisoners anyway? (Remember, 1950s and 1960s.)
Is the escape even plausible?
There are several aspects of the escape that need to be addressed. The most important aspect is whether Andy would have been able to have the posters to hide the hole, stayed in the same cell the whole time, or even avoided a cell search, something that was probably routine even then.
First, Andy very early on ingratiates himself to the Warden and the rest of the prison staff by helping them with their taxes and other financial matters. This makes him valuable to all of the relevant authority figures so they now have an interest in keeping him happy and, more importantly, safe. Combine that with the fact that Andy was never, at least outwardly, a problematic prisoner, there would have been much more inclination to allow him some latitude. Finally, why move him to a different cell if you have no reason to? (Sure, reasonable procedure might suggest doing that regularly so you can inspect cells for damage, do repairs, etc., but it’s hardly surprising that laziness or complacency would prevent such practices from being honoured.)
So that addresses the plausibility of Andy staying in the same cell long enough to dig through the wall. How could he do that without getting caught? Well, the posters hid the hole, of course. And he only worked for a few hours at night. This is where the prison routine worked in his favour. Also, he had his rock hammer, procured via Red, (look it up if you don’t know what one is) which he could carefully, over a long period of time, work his way through the wall. Given Andy’s depiction in the movie, this is the sort of methodical thing he would do. Others have made calculations that show that it is, at least theoretically, possible to make a tunnel as long as Andy did in the time had had to make it. Realistically, that would have to be less than the 19 years he was inside unless he had some sort of arrangement with the guards to leave his poster alone.
Then there’s the fairly large pile of debris to get rid of as he dug his tunnel. That, too, is relatively minor. Dumping it into the yard a handful or two a day would not be particularly noticeable and it would then get swept up in the regular cleaning such a yard would require. (Debris would be blown in on the wind, for instance.) This is actually the least implausible part of the whole thing since Andy’s public rock hobby would cover for most anything he got caught dropping in the yard.
Finally, the escape itself. He takes the Warden’s illicit books, evidence of murders at the prison, a new suit, and makes off through his tunnel, down a service allowance, and to a sewer pipe which he bashes a hole in with a rock (probably a chunk from the last few inches of his tunnel or one of the rocks Red’s gang collected for him). As I understand it, a cast iron pipe that had been in service for a long time (such as that one almost certainly had been) would be brittle enough to break with such a rock. That just leaves 500 yards of crawling through the pipe, which you would think would be literally suffocating. However, once the pipe was breeched, there would almost certainly be air flow through the pipe, if only due to the wind from the storm. That would probably be enough for a man in good enough physical condition and enough determination to make it.
There is one more thing that struck me today. How did he know which way to go? I think it’s reasonable that Andy had completed that tunnel some time (days or maybe weeks) prior and had done some research. He was also the meticulous type so he probably studied the building carefully as he moved around it for 19 years. I suspect he was actually waiting for the results of Tommy’s exam and after hearing Tommy’s story, he probably wanted to see if he could get out legally (though what he would do about the tunnel in that case is a mystery). He may also have been waiting for an opportune day to implement his escape plan (a stormy night, for instance). All of that means he had time to figure out a lot of the details we never see him figuring out (because Red never saw him doing it). Also, he shines his flashlight up and down the pipe after breeching it which probably told him which way the sewage was flowing or showed him other evidence of which way to go.
Is Andy Dufresne innocent or guilty?
This is an interesting question. The movie strongly implies that Andy is innocent. However, we never get an objective recount of the murders so we do not know for sure. Andy’s story isn’t impossible. Combine that with Tommy’s story and there’s a lot of room for doubt. Also, Andy’s characterization suggests an even temper and a level of fundamental goodness, or at least compassion. But, then, how much of that is Andy doing what he can to make the days pass on the inside? Personally, I think Andy is innocent enough that had Tommy’s testimony been available at the time of his trial, it would have been enough to raise reasonable doubt, and that might have been enough to get a new trial. Is he actually innocent? There’s reason to go either way. Red and Heywood certainly come to think he just might be innocent by the end. However, I don’t think it actually matters.
What was the movie really about?
If you think Shawshank Redemption is a prison break movie, you either haven’t seen it or you missed most of it. The vast majority of the runtime is dedicated to Andy’s exploits on the inside, none of which obviously relate to a grand plan to escape. We see him offering tax advice to guards. We see him gaining concessions for the work gang. We see him helping working hard to get the prison library improved. We see him helping Tommy get his GED. We see him slowly help Red over the course of 19 years. We see the actions of either a good man or a man trying to make up for something depending on your take on Andy’s guilt. Either way, he does good over those 19 years.
Then, as part of his escape, he ends the Warden’s reign of corruption and collects the prize. He came out of the whole affair with enough money to cover 19 years worth of earnings tax free. I think that escape (and his conversation with Red just prior) is what ultimately puts Red in the right frame of mind to actually pass his parole hearing.
So who was actually redeemed during the course of the movie? Well, I think it was Red who was redeemed, and that’s what makes Red the perfect choice for point of view character. Andy, on the other hand, didn’t really need a redemption arc if you believe he was innocent. If you believe he was guilty, then he didn’t really complete a redemption arc, did he? That would frame his actions as revenge which is hardly the ingredient needed for a redemption arc. Instead, he comes to a sort of inner peace by the end.
In fact, despite the prison setting, I think Shawshank Redemption is the story of Andy and Red’s friendship as it grew and flourished over time, and how they find peace as a result. I think that is why the final reunion scene on the beach is so critical to the overall movie. It provides a resolution to that journey.
Anyway, that’s enough about Shawshank Redemption, I think. Feel free to comment if you like, but remember that this is about the movie, so keep any commentary about the novella out of it. The novella is irrelevant. (Yes, it inspired the movie, but the movie varies from the novella so something that’s in the novella is not useful for figuring out what’s going on in the movie.)