Eyvonne Williams

 
 

POV (Blog)

Shawshank Redemption

SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Written & Directed by Frank Darabont

 

            In a seamless stream of narration on timeless   themes, Shawshank Redemption is one of many favorite screen stories.  As the title affirms, it is about deliverence and redemption that follow a journey of hope through the bowels of hell.  This journey unveils the core of our humanity.  It covers a period of two decades inside the drab and oppressive setting of Shawshank State Penitentiary.  This backdrop mirrors the hardened men and the harsh reality of incarceration.  We experience the dual nature of humanity in key characters, like the outward godliness of the Bible thumping nemesis, Warden Norton, a heartless man rotten to the core, and the main characters, convicted killers who exhibit a type of likeable goodness.  Dimensions in these criminal characters move an audience to identify with them.    

            Although the story unfolds in linear time the narration often jumps ahead to incidents occurring later in the story or relates to events in the past. The filmmaker uses this device to masterfully fashion the story’s scene design with vivid exposition and definitive dialogue that enables an audience to envision those images as if actually witnessing the action in the moment. By initiating a cause for motivation in one scene and completing its effect in a subsequent scene, an overlapping effect is created between sequences that tightens transitions, creates powerful pivotal points, and drives the story.    

At a glance our hero, Andy Dufresne, is described as “an icy and remorseless man,” a “cold fish,” and “a man with a silver spoon up his ass,” one who carries himself like he “thinks his shit smells sweeter.” But as the story unfolds Andy is exposed as a pensive man of intelligence, courage, and compassion who lives by the standards and qualities within his interior world. Though hard won, his ultimate redemption from past mistakes comes through a process of penalty, penitence, and purification.  This process reveals the spine of the story through specific actions our hero takes in Acts I, II, and III respectively. It offers the audience a truly satisfying catharsis.

Act I opens with Andy Dufresne in a conflicted state.  He has lost an exterior life to which he had grown accustomed. His successful career as a financial professional is not threatened, but the joys of his relationship to a beautiful woman who falls into the arms of another man disintegrates Andy’s world.  His choice to get revenge is the choice of a man in a drunken state responding in contradiction to his inner nature. At this point in the story the audience doesn’t understand that Andy’s interior world stands as a type of prison, “a closed book,” an inner conflict which hinders genuine expression of his well-meaning intentions, and shades the true impression of his good nature; so the inciting incident of the jury’s guilty verdict and the court’s back to back life sentences appear to be unfair. Holding onto his innocence Andy is jailed. He is a man wrongly accused, a hero experiencing undeserved misfortune by a disloyal wife, a court of law led by blindfolded justice, and the unfortunate coincidence of a double murder, his wife and her lover.

The misdirection and omissions the filmmaker utilizes in the telling, forces the audience to experience Andy’s story completely from another character’s point of view and growth arc. In this case we follow Andy’s journey through the eyes and perceptions of a prison inmate, Red. Red wagers that Andy as “new fish” is bound to break and squeal during the first night in prison, but he sorely loses his bets when Andy never makes a sound.

 

At a strategic point in Act I while tarring the roof  with Red and the other characters, Andy propels the action by creating an opportunity to befriend an enemy, Norton’s main man, Hadley.  Andy renders his expertise to solve Hadley’s tax problem; an honest suggestion from an honest motive, certainly the set-up for his turning point. However, throughout Act I Andy receives harsh penalty by the brutal beatings and sexual abuses of his tormentors, Bogs and the Sisters. What motivates his drive and supports his courage to fight these men is one pebble of opportunity that loosens and falls to the floor. While carving his name in the wall of his cell with his newly acquired rock hammer, he gets an indication that there is hope for escape. The moment foreshadows the dismantling of his inner wall. When Andy requests a poster of Rita Hayworth the audience witnesses the effect of this incident, but is not privy to the cause. This scene with the pebble is withheld until the last possible moment for the greatest possible emotional response. Once again resisting the Sisters, Andy is beaten “within an inch of his life.” With wide-eyed shock Red witnesses a stunning surprise as Hadley hammers Bogs mute, and according to the original script, flings him from the third tier. This is the pay-off that liberates Andy from his tormentors. With the debt more than paid, his penalty is complete and this turning point thrusts Andy into the new world of Act II.

He is suddenly removed from work not befitting his intelligence and skill, and is promoted as Brook’s library assistant. He understands his new role immediately, and as a valued “pet” he not only assists Norton and the guards with financial planning and taxes, but also extends his duties to benefit the staff of other prison communities. These acts of penitence propel the story to another pivotal point where Andy takes a real break, lets down barricades to his interior self, and, through music, shares the heart and hope of his inner world. The flood of music over the loud speakers, and the angelic voices of the two opera singers fill the prison yard and pours heaven’s oil over everyone.

This awakens a hopeful yearning Red had long buried. He regards ‘hope’ as a dangerous thing because he lives strictly in the exterior world the penitentiary dictates.  Andy gives Red a powerful tool, a harmonica, which serves as a visual metaphor to confront his inner anguish.

Also in this Act we experience reflection characters. Both Red and Brooks carry marks of being institutionalized. They mirror each other; both were incarcerated as young men and are paroled as old men; both fear the entry into the outside world because they have become dependent upon the walls. Out on parole they both occupy the same room, work on the same job, and experience the same emptiness, loneliness, fear, and uselessness. Red and Brooks serve as reflections of every imprisoned man’s possibilities, as Andy states, to “get busy living” or to “get busy dying.”

As we approach the mid-point we see Andy as a fully functioning inmate of self-respect, a man of knowledge without arrogance toward the uneducated, and a man of skill without fear toward those who lord over him.  By this time Andy has built a library in honor of Brooks and, among other activities, has helped numerous men get their high school diplomas.  He has worked cheap, laundering thousands of dollars for Norton in legally set up bank accounts across the region and comments to Red that he had “to come to prison to be a crook.” The mid-point sequence begins with the arrival of “new fish” Tommy Williams. Tommy recounts a story told to him by a previous cellmate that confirms Andy’s innocence. Upon hearing this, Red is stirred by the hope of Andy’s vindication.  It is obvious that Andy has redeemed his time rather than serving his time, but this possibility of legally reversing his verdict creates an urgent ticking clock for him.  In a meeting with Norton Andy requests permission to present this new information to the court and offers to keep silent about the money laundering. To his dismay Norton blocks the chance of the truth ever coming to light, murders Tommy, and throws Andy in the hole for two months.

After Andy’s release from the hole in a deeply pensive mood he confesses to Red that he indeed killed his wife by his inability to be emotionally available and expressive to her. Although he didn’t pull the trigger he takes responsibility for driving her away and causing her death. Through his confession he comes to terms with his unconscious desire to be forgiven. His penitence is complete, he receives forgiveness, and in so many words is saying goodbye to Red. Red misinterprets Andy’s inner resolve as a change for the worst and panics. Unaware of Andy’s plan, both the audience and Red discover together Andy’s escape.

A second stunning surprise offers a powerful moment.  It happens when Norton rips the poster of Rita from the wall revealing the befuddled faces of Norton, Red, and guards as they peer down the tunnel hidden behind it. “Andy had dug his way to freedom.” Purification had already come for Andy. The audience becomes aware of this in Act III as the filmaker backtracks to reveal a series of events from the previous night showing Andy’s actions before, during, and after his escape. He is purged in his final baptism when he plunges into the river of shit and crawls nearly “three football fields” to freedom. Emerging clean as a whistle he gathers the spotless money from each bank with a smile. His second lifetime sentence is expunged and translated into a second chance at life. His redemption is complete!

The obligatory sequence is sweet reprisal in Norton’s face. He first sees Andy’s old shoes, then rushes to the safe, removes what he thinks is his ledger, and sees it is Andy’s Bible. He opens it to the page where Andy’s rock-hammer had been hidden, with the look of panic, turns toward the sound of sirens, and concedes. Andy’s physical persecutions from Norton had converted to a struggle of soul, that long battle between them is finally over and Andy is victor. The metaphorical bookends of the gun and six bullets begin and end Andy’s journey. In the opening scenes the gun is the device for Andy’s unjust incarceration linking us to the closing scene where the gun is the device for his enemy’s destructive escape from justice. 

In the conclusion Red’s transformation is nearly complete. He retreats into an unfamiliar world of his inner self, thinking of Andy, missing Andy, knowing that he is somewhere enjoying freedom by the ocean. To Red’s surprise this sense of resolve in his inner disposition sets the tone for his probation appeal to be accepted. Once on the outside it is the same state of soul that helps him choose to “get busy living.”   He finds the letter Andy had buried that reads, “…hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…”   With hope Red feels “the excitement only a free man can feel,” a person “at the beginning of a brand new journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”  Hope, as real and as wonderful as imagined in the greatest dream takes him past fear to that place only a truly changed man can find, a place where his friend Andy had always known.

October 14, 2013 

c. Phyllis Yvonne Williams/A New Thing Enterprises.  All Rights Reserved.