In 1947, a banker is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover during an affair. He pleads innocent, but the evidence is stacked high against him, and his quiet, distant manner wins him no stars with the jury. Andy Dufresne is sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary, a corrupt prison run by Warden Samuel Norton, who has a pride that eclipses all the evil within his prison.
What follows is the story of one man's struggle to exist under hopeless conditions. Andy is coerced into laundering money for the Warden, commenting to his friend Red, "On the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook." During his first years he is sexually assaulted again and again by a gang of men known as "The Sisters", who finally rape and beat him to the point where he is commuted to the infirmary.
At one point, Andy takes a young inmate, Tommy, under his wing -- trying to help him get his GED. After hearing Andy's story, Tommy says that he knew a prisoner who had bragged about killing a banker's wife and her lover. Andy runs to the Warden with this story, and his hope of a new trial, and the Warden--fearful of Andy's knowledge of his illegal activities--gives him two months in solitary confinement.
In spite of this backdrop, this is a movie primarily about hope and redemption. Andy is befriended by Red, a smuggler who can acquire almost any contraband for the prisoners. Red points out Andy's differences, his struggle to hope in a place where most grew to depend on the walls surrounding them. Andy does whatever he can to feel civilized again, and then uses that civilization to bring hope to his inmates. In my favorite scene, he aquires a record player, and after locking the guard in the bathroom, he broadcasts The Marriage of Figaro over the public address system for all the prison to hear. Red notes, "It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."
This is not an entertaining movie. This is not a movie to kick back and watch some Saturday night with friends. I recommend watching it alone, because it's too brutal and too real to risk fearing what someone else is thinking. It deserves its R rating, with both violence and language. But the movie is a realistic work of art, like a window into a world few of us see. The soundtrack, the performances, the cinematography...everything culminates in this moving story of one innocent man in a living hell.
My favorite movies are all sad ones, but I don't think of them that way. I love The Mission because it portrays two sides of love; fighting and holiness. I love Equilibrium because it shows how much we need pain and sorrow, in order to have joy and happiness. I love The Village because it shows that sometimes we commit small sins in order to avoid bigger ones, and that through those wrongs, love continues to run--overreaching all.
The Shawshank Redemption also gave me a glimpse into something--that hope is active, risky, desperate. To quote Ms. Solnit, "Hope is not a lottery ticket that you can...clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with, in an emergency." Hope is more than a lifeline we cling to, it is not just our defense, but also our offense. When we dare to hope, we also dare to put ourselves on the line, to risk everything for that hope.
In another scene of Shawshank that I love, Andy risks severe punishment by giving the Captain of the Guard some advice about his taxes. At one point, Captain Hadley is holding Andy over the edge of the building (Hadley is known for beating the prisoners to death). Andy takes his foothold a step further, and offers to help the Captain with his taxes, in exchange for beers for his coworkers. The Captain grudgingly agree's to it. Red comments that Andy may have been trying to buy friends with that risky act, but he believed that Andy did it just to feel human again. And later in the movie we see that it was hope that drove Andy to risk his life, all he had left, for a few beers for his friends.
I cannot emphasize enough that this movie is brutal. But there is a beam of hope that comes through Andy Dufresne, a hope that, in the end, wins out over all the darkness. Sometimes I believe we need to push ourselves over the edge of our comfort zone, and look at the pain around us. Had this movie been strictly about that pain, I would have come away hating it, depressed at the darkness. But this movie also let us see a triumph over pain, a humanity within inhumanity, an abused peace that held fast to something bigger than the wounds it suffered.