The movie The Shawshank Redemption is a lot like one of its main characters, Andy Dufresne. It’s something of a mystery. Popularity alone has made it a classic, but what does it do right? With so many cinematic elements being quite good but far from standout, how is it this movie resonates the way it does?
I don’t know what the word “classic” even means but I do know that, willingly or not, I have to say this is one of the few movies I in recent decades I can easily call classic.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by Frank Darabont
“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
— Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption —
The key to The Shawshank Redemption is its simplicity. It starts in one place and makes its way to another — an end point — largely following a straight line.
Visually, it is also pretty straight forward. It shows us a scene and the camera doesn’t get in the way. It presents its story and not long after the movie starts, you cease to be aware of the movie. There is only the story.
I’ve no idea how they managed this. I think there are a number of elements that could be catalogued. But there are one or two that strike me as key.
The first is the character of Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins. The movie centres around him — but he’s not the main character.
Ellis ‘Red’ Redding is, played by Morgan Freeman. This is the only element of what might be called complexity in the film, and I’m not sure if it was intentional or by accident.
Red is the main character but in a curious way. Everything centres on Andy but the movie is about Red and how he sees and interprets Andy.
We never see anything through Andy’s eyes, only through Red’s. Little of the main action involves Red, yet all of it is about Red and how he sees it.
And the reason this is key is that little quote at the top from the Andy character about a choice between living and dying.
The movie’s theme is hope. Yet that isn’t why it became and remains so popular with audiences.
While it gives us a sense of uplifting elation with it’s unequivocal message of hope, it’s Andy and Red and their relationship that grabs us, holds us and has us returning to the movie again and again.
We really like these people and we really like spending time with them.
It’s the same thing that made long-running television series like M*A*S*H and Bonanza so popular.
The movie’s story is compelling but only because it is so focused on Andy and Red, with Red becoming us. His eyes are our eyes; his responses are ours.
It also makes Andy a character of mystery, though not in a dark sense.
The word mystery may be misleading. A puzzle may be a more apt description.
What does Andy have that makes him so different than the other prisoners? What keeps driving him to keep going, to take the awful things that happen to him in stride and stay so focused?
The answer is the film’s theme: hope.
At DVDTown, John Puccio points out that as of that writing, 2008, The Shawshank Redemption was at the top of IMDb’s list of Top 250 movies. As of today, July 3, 2011, it remains at the top, tied with The Godfather but with almost a third more votes. People don’t like this movie; they love it.
Getting back to the elements that work so happily in the film to make it such a success, apart from the characters of Andy and Red, there is that story I referred to at the beginning of this. It’s a pretty standard story, one we’ve seen and heard many times over: a character triumphs despite overwhelming odds.
We never tire of stories like this because they are archetypal. They are standard myth stuff and are repeated over and over throughout history in many forms — but all essentially the same story.
How is it that amid all this repetition one emerges every generation or so to snag our attention and stand out among the others? In the case of The Shawshank Redemption, the answer is two words: Andy and Red.
(An aside: as this movie also shows, if your film requires a narrator, you can never go wrong using Morgan Freeman.)