Prison movies are an ugly little sub-genre that often offer little more than extended examinations of the various kinds of physical, emotional, mental, moral, and spiritual depravity that dominate incarcerated life. Cinematic prisons are often playgrounds of cruelty in which even the most sympathetic protagonists must participate in order to survive. But to every rule is the exception, which is what brings us to the Shawshank Redemption, an adaptation of a Stephen King story that is about a man’s struggle to provide hope to others. It happens to take place in a prison, but the Shawshank Redemption isn’t really a prison movie, which is just one of the reasons why it is so monumentally wonderful.
In 1947, banker Andy Dufresne is wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover and sentenced to back-to-back life sentences in the brutal Shawshank Penitentiary. Thrown in with career criminals and prison lifers of every sort, Andy befriends fellow inmate Ellis “Red” Redding and some other long-time convicts…but he is also the frequent target of a gang of prison rapists led by the sadistic Bogs Diamond. But Andy perseveres, and eventually his accounting skills become a helpful resource to certain prison guards with money troubles, and with Warden Norton, a preachy authoritarian who is using the prison as a money laundering operation. Kept on a short leash by Norton, Andy maintains the scheme for as long as he can, using what few perks Norton affords him to help his fellow convicts maintain their sense of hope…as well as orchestrating a particularly audacious breakout and grand act of revenge that will make sure that even a place like Shawshank cannot evade justice forever.
At the heart of this movie is the deep and genuine friendship between Andy and Red. When they first meet, Red is the seasoned con who is in for 40 years, but knows that when he gets out one day, he won’t have much of a life left waiting for him on the outside, so he’s smart enough to know not to let dreams of a life outside of prison sustain him. And yet, Andy’s relentless, inherent goodness—his willingness to help others, even at great cost to himself in a place that absolutely does not reward such selflessness—gets Red to thinking: is Andy daft, or is he that one guy who prison just can’t break?
It’s a fair question, and one that the movie spends much of its time examining. The focus on Andy, Red and their thoughts on a life within the savage confines of Shawshank—a harsh prison by any standard—are what turn this from a movie that asks “how bad would it be to go to prison” to one that asks, “what happens when a man refuses to accept his punishment as actual punishment?” It’s a fascinating conflict driven by a central irony. We don’t see much of Andy outside of prison, but what little we do see is mousy, retreating and unimpressive. But once he enters Shawshank, he decides not just to survive his new reality, but he will survive it on his own terms. Andy would not have been that guy had he not gone to Shawshank. Prison, after all, changes everybody.
For a movie that takes place amid endless hardship and sadness, The Shawshank Redemption delivers a hugely gratifying ending as we see Andy escape the prison and manage to deliver a demolishing rebuke to the sinister Warden Norton. But the real reward is seeing Red end his stay in prison, too, and enter a world where old, institutionalized cons are more likely to hang themselves then enjoy their freedom. There, when Red is at his most vulnerable, we see Andy has arranged salvation for his old friend. Red might have saved Andy in prison, and Andy saves Red out in the world. Their kinship is deep, abiding, and the stuff of great storytelling.
But for all of that, Shawshank’s moment of truth comes earlier, in a three-scene arc that begins with Andy’s first night in lockup. The other cons play a game to get one of the newcomers to crack under the realization that they are imprisoned. When one of the new fish inevitably melts down into a blubbering mess, Hadley beats the man half to death just to shut him up. Andy, meanwhile, says not a thing. He’s the one you expect to crack. But he might as well be made of stone. He won’t let this place get to him.
Later, as Andy is on a work team tarring a roof, he overhears Hadley griping about a taxable inheritance he’s received. Andy chances Hadley’s wrath to advise him on a way to legally shelter his money, and all he asks for in return is for some cold beer for the other guys on the work crew. Andy doesn’t do it to earn Hadley’s favor, or to earn respect. He does it because he likes reminding everyone around him, con and guard alike, that even in Shawshank, one doesn’t have to give up their dignity entirely.
Some time later, Bogs and his crew nearly beat Andy to death after a botched rape attempt. Without any prompting, Hadley awaits Bogs in Bogs’ own cell to deliver a reprisal so swift and brutal that it leaves Bogs unable to hurt anybody ever again. Hadley doesn’t do it for justice; he never avenged any of Bogs’ many other victims. And he doesn’t do it because Bogs hurt somebody Hadley finds valuable; Andy’s tax help was a one-time thing. He does it because deep down, he feels some kind of gratitude for what Andy did for him. Whether Hadley knows it or not, Andy’s decency has gotten under his skin, and he reacts accordingly. Granted, Hadley expresses his gratitude at the end of a truncheon, but that he does it at all speaks volumes to how Shawshank isn’t changing Andy. Andy is changing Shawshank. As if there was any doubt.