Thursday, October 3, 2013

Classics: A Review of The Shawshank Redemption By Lauren Ennis

No frienship is complete without a a voice over narration

Prison ‘lifer’ Andy Dufresne tells fellow inmate, Red, get busy living or get busy dying. This line encompasses the entire message and appeal of the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption. Based off of the Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, the film relates the struggle of a falsely convicted man to maintain hope and dignity while enduring the trials and humiliations of life in prison. Though it made little commercial impact during its theatrical release, the film, like its hero, triumphed above the obstacles in its way and went on to gain a devoted following and critical acclaim.  The film is a truly resonant story which uses the harsh realities of prison as the backdrop for a tale of injustice, corruption, friendship, and ultimately, hope.

The story begins in 1947, as bank vice president Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) loads a gun and drinks a bottle of whiskey in his car after discovering his wife’s affair with another man. The scene then flashes ahead as Andy is facing trial for the murder of his wife and her lover. Although Andy relates a consistent story and repeatedly proclaims his innocence, his seeming detachment leads the jury to convict him of first degree murder. He is then sentenced to a life sentence in the notoriously brutal Shawshank Prison. His mild manner leads fellow lifer, Red (Morgan Freeman), to place a bet that Andy will be the first of the new recruits to break down upon entering prison. To the prisoners’ surprise, Andy “never made a sound”, earning him Red’s begrudging respect ,which later forms the basis of an enduring friendship between them. Unfortunately, it is this same dignity that makes Andy a target for a particularly brutal gang of prisoners known as “The Sisters”, who do all that is in their power to assert their dominance and break his spirit.

Despite the seemingly endless degradations that he is forced to endure, Andy eventually discovers an opportunity when he overhears a guard (Clancy Brown) complaining about paying taxes on his recent inheritance. Using his banking expertise, he helps the guard use various legal loopholes to avoid paying the unwanted tax fees. The guard is so delighted that he brings Andy’s work to the attention of the other guards, and eventually to the attention of the prison’s hypocritical warden (Bob Gunton). Rather than using his new position as the guards’ favorite strictly to his own advantage, Andy uses his influence to obtain favors that benefit his fellow prisoners as well, including the instituting of a prison library and education program. Through his efforts, he reminds his fellow inmates of their humanity and provides them with the motivation to keep going. Eventually, Andy learns that the warden ordered the execution of a fellow inmate (Gil Bellows) in order to prevent the truth of Andy’s unjust conviction from coming to light.  Upon learning of this revelation, he concocts a plan that will make him a legend amongst his fellow prisoners.

An all-purpose pin-up girl
Through the performances of its excellent cast, The Shawshank Redemption is able to take the relatively simple tale of an unjustly convicted man, and elevate it to epic proportions. Tim Robbins provides the film with its emotional core as the quietly defiant Andy. His understated approach to the character enables him to embody both the mild mannered banker that viewers are first introduced to, and the courageous hero who goes on to inspire his fellow inmates. Despite Robbins’ excellent portrayal, it is Morgan Freeman who turns in the film’s most memorable performance as Andy’s wise best friend, Red. Freeman imbues Red with both a wry sense of humor that allows him to appreciate life’s ironies and an innate dignity; qualities which are essential to survival in prison. Freeman’s voice over narration moves the story along while adding poignancy to the film’s proceedings. The supporting cast is also exemplary in their portrayals of the warden, guards, and inmates that make up the prison system. Each of these actors create three dimensional characters that add to the story’s sense of authenticity. After viewing these performances, it is little wonder that the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two Golden Globe Awards.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way in which it portrays the reality of prison life while still maintaining an uplifting tone. One of the keys to the film’s balance between authenticity and outright resignation is its emphasis upon justice. Although the events of the story are set in motion by the miscarriage of justice at Andy’s trial, a greater, divine, justice later comes into play and works the prison system's corruption against itself. For instance, when Bogs (Mark Rolston) is finally forced to answer for the atrocities he has committed against Andy and countless other prisoners, it is not at the hands of the abused inmates, but those of the equally abusive guard, Hadley. Similarly, when Andy learns information needed to exonerate himself, he does so through an inmate he has been tutoring, rather than through his own research. In both of these instances, Andy is provided with assistance in unlikely places, which hint at the possibility that his prayers may be heard after all. When Andy is finally able to attain his revenge against the warden and prison staff in the film’s climax, he assumes a Christ-like pose, revealing that a greater justice has indeed been served.

The film’s greatest strength and most uplifting aspect is the bond between Andy and Red. Upon their first meeting, the men appear to be complete opposites. Despite their racial, socio-economical, and experiential differences, however, they are able to see through to their basic similarity; their mutual need for freedom. The film makes this friendship believable by having Andy gradually earn Red’s trust and respect over time, rather than having the men form an instant friendship. Over the course of the next twenty years, they provide each other with the humor, emotional support, and basic human interaction that they need to cope with life behind bars. It is this mutual support that enables them to hang onto what little hope they have left and keep working towards a bearable, if not better, tomorrow. Ultimately, it is not Andy’s attainment of justice or revenge, but the final reunion between these two friends that proves to be the film’s most effective moment.

The Shawshank Redemption is a true classic that speaks to the humanity in us all. The film relates the importance of friendship and hope in all our lives through one man's struggle and eventual salvation.  The story is heartfelt without being sentimental, and authentically gritty without being despairing. Few films have been able to explore the highs and lows of human nature so convincingly. So, get busy living and try a stint in Shawshank; it will be one sentence you won’t want to end.


Freedom's rain beats prison plumbing every time

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