The Shawshank Book Club

It’s the voice of God reporting to you from maximum security prison. The oatmeal is served with maggots, the new guy cried and was beaten for it, and the communal showers are just as awkward as you believe. But otherwise, life is life and most things never change. Some plot their escape, other veterans hope they never have to leave, and some, like Andy, stroll through the yard like it’s Hyde Park on a Sunday. It’s not much, but it’s chains, it’s stone, and eventually it’s home.

Shawshank Redemption begins on the outside in the 1940s. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is an easy-going banker with an unfaithful wife. When Andy discovers the dirty little secret he gets drunk, follows his wife to her lover’s house, loads his revolver, walks up to the door, and then thinks better of it and leaves. But wouldn’t you know it, the couple is found poked with bullets the next morning anyway. Being a reserved, inexpressive man, Andy fails to convince the judge of his innocence and is condemned to life at Shawshank Prison. Among the liars and the fighters, Andy’s quiet pensiveness doesn’t really fit in. He’s sized-up for some time by Red (Morgan Freeman) and his crew before they finally welcome Andy to the fold. And so the routine begins: sleep, eat, work, chat, read, eat, sleep. Andy, although wordlessly bitter about his unjust sentencing, accepts his new life almost immediately, and becomes a true advocate for making the absolute best of it, to the never-ending shock and awe of Red and his mates.

While some films flaunt the fancy sets, great costumes, and mesmerizing effects, Shawshank Redemption is all about the characters and the story that drives them. We meet the crew in the 1940s and linger in our acquaintance for a solid 20 years. The difference from here to there is only noticeable at the end (some are a little harder, some are a little more open-minded); the meandering path through the years offers such subtle changes that it just feels natural. The characters may slouch a little more, but the cells don’t change, the showers are still awkward, and there hasn’t been a new book in the library since the turn of the century. Andy takes his sweet time to acclimatize – after all, he’s got lots of it to spare. He slips unnoticed into this new environment like he’s always been there. Like Waldo in a picture book. When Andy figures out little things to make life a touch more human, he quietly does them. No fuss, no campaign speech, just one little sidestep and a few thousand letters to congress.

You would think the end-goal of Shawshank Redemption is escape, but it’s not. Well… escape would be nice, but accepting fate is much more natural. The present goal is actually learning to survive on the inside. Learning to be invisible within a routine institution uses the same techniques as everywhere else – just with more permission to use the loo. Andy finds little projects to occupy his time and subtly improve his quality of life. People don’t seem to notice until after he’s done it and moved on. Hindsight is what makes Andy the hero — and his power to make convicts feel human again.

We’re always kept one step behind each of Andy’s schemes, as witnessed through Red’s narration. Every stunt and project feels like a total surprise. Shawshank Redemption isn’t exciting because of the effects or the drama (minus some pretty nifty aerial shots), it’s enthralling because the characters grow and change despite their situation. It’s like watching a man reshape the world from inside a bomb shelter. It’s inspiring, really, to look at Average Andy and the convicted felons we should hate and root for their achievements.

No one in Shawshank is really a villain – they all have redeemable moments. That’s part of what makes this such a human movie. Nothing is black and white. Some people are mean, some are twisted, but everyone has troubles and weak spots aren’t meant to be exploited. It’s by no means a feel-good movie, but it won’t kick you in the soul like The Green Mile either. Shawshank Redemption is all about character development and how much someone can take before they throw away the water and sprint towards the desert. Well-deserving of its best picture, best actor, and best writing Oscar wins, Shawshank Redemption is a movie we don’t really talk about anymore, but remains a classic nonetheless. 10/10.

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”