The Shawshank Redemption

Red and Andy in prison uniforms in The Shawshank Redemption

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy living or get busy dying.”

Redemption is a word, much like many others, that carries multiple meanings. The most common definition is an act of paying for a fault or mistake; the second most common definition is a rescue or deliverance. The Shawshank Redemption focuses on both. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Majestic) and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, this aptly-named film focuses on the redemption of both of its lead characters, and there’s an amazing emotional payoff in watching this film start to finish. It doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of prison and what it does to people, and as such it can be heavy and even heartbreaking at times, but this is a powerful story that should be watched by everyone.

The film opens with Andy Dufresne in court facing trial for the murder of his wife—a crime we know from the start he did not commit. Unfortunately, his innocence does not preclude his indictment, and he’s sentenced to life in Shawshank Prison. He quickly forms a bond with a fellow inmate known to other inmates simply as Red, who is also in for life for a crime he committed when he was very young. Andy, a former accountant, is able to help some of the prison guards out with their finances, which gets the attention of the warden, who puts him to work for both the prison staff and the prison itself working out finances of all sorts. Andy becomes invaluable to the prison and warden—but not valuable enough to be treated as anything more than a prisoner by the not altogether honorable staff. As Andy makes things better for himself and fellow inmates, he’s left with the sad realization that things will never be as good as they were outside of prison—especially when the warden has the power to make his life infinitely worse on a whim.

Remember, Red, hope is a good thing—maybe the best of things—and no good thing ever dies.

The Shawshank Redemption is a film that portrays injustice, and it does this exceedingly well. It shows exactly how the worst injustices can occur in the justice system, and it shows us how people’s lives are affected. There are moments that are heartbreaking and frustrating. The film carefully doles out enough emotional satisfaction to keep the viewer engaged while also constantly making things worse for the characters, but it does this so that the moment of release at the end is that much sweeter. In this sense, it’s a lot like films like Whiplash and Schindler’s List, that present drama and tension that make it hard to watch in places, but the payoff is incredible. For that reason, the ending of this film is one of the best and certainly one of the most gratifying in film history.

This film is brilliant, but its path to success wasn’t exactly straightforward. Like another great Frank Darabont film, The Green Mile—and like countless other films—this is based on a story by Stephen King. Darabont bought the rights from King for $1,000. He wrote the script, but had never directed a major release movie like this one, so he had some trouble getting himself into the director’s seat. Rob Reiner actually offered a hefty sum of money to direct the film himself, but Darabont kept fighting for his own chance to direct the film—and he ended up taking a significant pay cut to do it. Despite the film being brilliant, it barely made back its production budget during its theatrical run and was actually considered a flop. But in 1995, the year after its release, this was the most rented video (remember when Blockbuster was a thing?), and it still holds a record as one of the most rented videos of all time. Success or failure, though, Stephen King loved the film and said it was one of his favorite adaptations of his stories. He refused to cash Darabont’s check for $1,000, and eventually had it framed and sent back to Darabont with the note, “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve.”

Red and Andy smile as the watch a movie in The Shawshank Redemption
The film is primarily about Andy, but it’s narrated by Red, and the growth of both characters is a big part of what makes this film so great. Both are great characters, and their respective character arcs are extremely well-written.

One thing that really struck me with this film is how well it captures the failures of prison as a way of reforming convicts. Some of the inmates are released back into the public in the film, and, just like real life, these prisoners are completely unprepared for life outside of prison and have a difficult, if not impossible, time adjusting. There are many sympathetic characters among the inmates, so this film is actually an excellent one to introduce ideas of prison reform, or at least some of the problems with the prison system in America (which is ironic, considering the film is set about 70 years ago and things haven’t really gotten better). It’s not really political—it just sets out to tell a great story—but the struggles the inmates face are painfully true-to-life and can be eye-opening to some.

The Shawshank Redemption is an outstanding drama about perseverance, integrity, and, of course, redemption. It can be heavy at times, but the pay-off in the end makes every bit worth it. As Ian Nathan of Empire Magazine said in his review, if you don’t love Shawshank, chances are you’re beyond redemption. I think every adult, and many mature teenagers should see this film.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:22
Director: Frank Darabont
Year: 1994
Genres: drama
Rating: R

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