This film originated from a Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The actress actually does play into this movie and her famed hair flip from Gilda even makes a memorable appearance. However, the shortening of the title not only simplifies things, but it refocuses the film on what it is all about. You guessed it. At its core, Shawshank is about the redemption of one man who would never let his hope or ardent spirit be quelled. That man is the memorable, but generally unassuming, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins).
His story began back in 1947 when he was put on trial after being accused of riddling his unfaithful wife and her lover with bullets in his drunken rage. We see bits and pieces of what happened, but not everything. Andy quietly maintains his innocence, but he is dealt two back-to-back life sentences in the Shawshank state penitentiary.
When he gets there initially he looks to be a pushover, not ready for the dark recesses and the harsh reality that is prison life. In his typically smooth mode of voice-over, Morgan Freeman, as camp grifter Red, recalls when he first set eyes on this man. He didn’t know it then but Andy would prove to be a life-changing acquaintance, and he also proved to have more guts than Red was expecting.
They first cross paths when Andy comes to Red inquiring about getting a rock hammer and Rita Hayworth. Red obliges and these trinkets allow Andy to shape rocks to form a chess set. The poster goes up on his wall and others soon follow. He’s a man who always strives to stay busy, and he never lets his circumstances get him down.
It doesn’t come easy though because the local prison gang christened “the sisters” are used to getting their way with any inmate they cross paths with. Andy is not one such individual, and he pays the price, receiving beatings on multiple occasions. Still, he keeps on living and ultimately makes a name for himself by providing tax advice for one of the most notorious guards. It’s after this specific moment when he wins a round of beers for his mates that they begin to see the extraordinary individual in their midst. He goes by the credo, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Following his own words to a tee, Andy begins to prove his worth and earn respect as he gives tax advice to many of the prison attendants and guards. Even the hypocritical warden uses his services to keep his finances and office in order.
Andy is also transferred from doing grunt work to helping the aged prisoner Brooks in the library. It’s a step up and unprecedented in the history of the prison, but then Andy is truly special. After Brooks is released and tragedy strikes his life, Andy continues to improve things. He regularly writes his representative for funding so he can get more books and his work finally pays off. He also sets up a program so prisoners and workers alike can gain the equivalent of a high school education.
As the years pass, the prisoners get older and the posters change on Andy’s wall from first Rita, to Marilyn, and finally Raquel. About that time, a young prisoner named Tommy finds himself in prison and all the old timers like his energy. Andy resolves to get the young man an education and Tommy, in turn, shares some potentially life changing evidence with Andy. But it all comes to naught. The warden maintains his tyrannical reign and the defenseless Tommy is struck down.
Andy begins to lose some of his privileges as the warden starts to clamp down on him again by throwing him into solitary confinement for two months. When he gets out, Andy’s hope is still alive, sharing with Red about his dream of someday going to Zihuatanejo in Mexico to live in solitude. Red thinks it’s all folly, but agrees to do something for him if he ever gets out.
Then during an upcoming roll call, all of a sudden, just like that, Andy Dufresne is gone for good. To add insult to injury, he used his business acumen to stick it to the warden who is investigated by the police. Andy has the last laugh.
After so many rejections and denials, Red finally gets his parole and he looks like a mirror image of Brooks, a man who grew to know the Shawshank as his only way of life. It looks pretty fast and grim on the outside now. But Red has a purpose that Brooks did not, in Andy. He keeps his promise to Andy and rendezvous with his old friend.
Shawshank is a thoroughly engaging film and it works because of the performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Robbins acts as such a bright light despite his solemnity and subtlety. He is unceasingly upright, the perfect contrast to this prison which is a vile, disgusting place full of corruption and violence. Freeman is the cynic and in many ways, he stands in for the audience. He wants to believe in a man like Andy as much as us, but the world initially tells him he cannot. However, Andy proves Red and the world wrong, by redeeming what has fallen. I can never get over that truth because it is such a powerful message told in such an engaging way.