By John H. Foote


Watching The Shawshank Redemption for the first time at TIFF, my breath was literally taken away three times in the film. The first time was with the two lead performances, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, as two men serving long sentences in Shawshank Prison, the second was in the audacity and patience Andy (Robbins) had in his escape and the third was the final scene of the film on a beach, the two men sun drenched in joy.

Based on a Stephen King novella, like Stand by Me (1986) there are no monsters in this film, unless you include the corrupt warden and sadists within the picture, just two men who come to need each other to survive the horrors of the prison. Red (Morgan Freeman) has been here a very long time by the time Andy (Tim Robbins) arrives, innocent of a crime he has been convicted for. I know, I know, all inmates are innocent, but it turns out Andy truly was, making his time in Shawshank a living hell. Hassled by the bull queers who use men for sex (they are not homosexuals either), used by the guards and then the warden to keep his corruption well hidden, Andy has a quiet about him that Red picks up on, he is content, even at peace in this hell hole. Red is that guy in prison who can get you things, virtually anything for the right price, and what Andy wants is a rock hammer to make chess men with. He and Andy become best friends through the years as they attempt to eke out a life within the walls of the prison.

Red does not understand the hope that Andy carries with him throughout his term and only when Andy is finally gone does he come to terms with what hope meant to Andy. As the years pass, we see the director Frank Darabont has created a film that allows the prison to become a metaphor for life itself. In his time here Andy brings so much to the men, the music of Mozart, a proper library created by harassing the right government official to finally send him funds and books, he operates an income tax business, doing the taxes of the guards and the warden, and he creates a series of business ventures so the warden, a hypocritically pious man, can hide his theft and fraud.

The Warden trusts Andy, his fatal mistake.

When a young rock and roller comes to the prison talking about what turns out to be Andy’s crime, his words could clear Andy in every way. But rather than listen to Andy the warden dismisses him, and eventually has the young man shot dead, wiping clean any hope for Andy. Is Andy defeated? Oh no, Red notices he becomes even more peaceful and Zen like as we move closer to his day of escape.

With his rock hammer, Andy has carefully created a gaping hole, hidden by various posters through the years. He carried out the dust and stones in his pockets depositing it in the yard. He dutifully does the books each night for the warden, shines his shoes before going back to his cell. One night he puts the man’s shoes on his own feet and walks back to his cell unnoticed by no one. And here he makes his escape, going through his tunnel, hidden by his latest poster, this one of Raquel Welch in the film One Million Years BC (1966), crawls through unspeakable filth in the sewage pipe and is finally free, falling into a creek where he washes himself off, changes into the clothes packed in plastic he has brought with him and makes his way to town. There he walks into several banks and withdraws the Warden’s money, nearly half a million dollars in 1966 (or so), buys a car and heads south. Having never been seen before, the accounts all opened over the phone, no one knew who he was, or that he was an inmate. To them he was a tall, lanky rich man taking home his cash. His former life as a banker taught Andy how to hide money, how to move it around and how to forge ID. He walks into to each bank with the proper identification and documents and walks out with the Wardens money, all dirty money.

He crosses the border and settles into a small Mexican village, writing Red. Inviting him down if he ever gets parole. Andy has left him money under a rock they once talked about, and there it sits for the older man.

Andy dropped into the mail a book citing all the crimes of the Warden, a paper trail right to the man, and on the day of his escape, the sirens come screaming up the driveway of the prison. Guards are arrested for murder, and the Warden is about to be a prisoner. Taking the cowards way out he shoots himself in the head, leaving the inmates grinning in satisfaction, one more gift from their beloved Andy.

With Andy gone, Red is a changed man, finally realizing what hope is. Hope let Andy live all this time, hope is a dream you never let go of because hope can sustain life as it is being drained out of you. Andy is the constant discussion at dinner as the men remember their friend and marvel at what he pulled off. When Red is called in for his annual parole hearing for the first time he answers honestly, telling them the boy who was convicted of the crimes he committed does not exist anymore, just this cynical old man. He hopes he is not the same boy he once was; he hopes he is rehabilitated, but the truth of the matter he is he just does not care anymore. They can keep him or set him loose, it is their choice, has always been their choice and he knows it.

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins

They parole him and he finds a menial job bagging groceries in a local grocery shop. Freedom is hard, he finds himself still asking to go the washroom rather than just going, or struggling with what to do with his spare time, that now belongs entirely to him.

Then next day he takes a bus into the country where he finds the rock fence Andy spoke of and the rock he described. Under the rock is a package for Red, with one thousand dollars in it in crisp $100 dollar bills. And of course a note, asking Red if he can come a little farther on his journey to a Mexican village.

The next day Red breaks parole, boarding a bus for Mexico. He finds the village, removes his shoes to walk barefoot in the striking white sand, and there working on a boat on the beach is Andy. Andy rises and walks to his friend, the two embracing like brothers, their love for one another borne of a friendship most people can never experience even once in their lifetime.

Hope brought them together, Red now realizes and Andy was right, hope is a good thing.

Initially The Shawshank Redemption was well reviewed coming out of TIFF and seemed headed for strong box office, but the film flopped when released into the theatres. Everyone that saw it had high praise, but the word of mouth was not strong enough. Beaten, it was hastily put on video where it became an absolute sensation, among the hottest renting tapes in North America. The morning of the Academy Award nominations, The Shawshank Redemption, in a very strong year, earned seven nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman) and Best Screenplay among them. Though Tim Robbins had earned a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his performance in the film, he was snubbed by the Academy with only Freeman nominated. And poor Frank Darabont, a Directors Guild nominee, but no Oscar nominee. Realizing they had lightning in a bottle, the film was re-released back into theatres where this time it filled houses and earned strong word of mouth. Though the film did not win a single Academy Award, it has remained one of the most beloved films of all time and stands tall as one of the very films ever made.

Darabont directed and wrote the film, deviating from the book only in making Red a black character, as he is written as red headed Irishman. “Is there another actor who do greater work as Red?” mused the director, “I think not.” Having spent most of his career in strong supporting roles, showcased in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), with this Freeman became a major star and a great actor. Twice Darabont directed films adapted from the work of writer Stephen King, this and The Green Mile (1999) earning nominations from the Directors Guild of America as the year’s best director, and both were Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

Morgan Freeman

The performances in The Shawshank Redemption have become legendary, Freeman best as a man who believes his soul is dead until he meets Andy. Befriending Andy changes the man’s life and he realizes, even in the darkest of places and Shawshank has a lot of those, one can find a glimmer of light, of hope. He has no clue what Andy is up to in the cell next to his and recognizes how much Andy admires him in NOT including him in the plan, an act of respect. But when Andy is gone, Red misses him, deeply, and mostly lounges about remembering the stories and lessons of his friend, those he now believes. His final meeting with the parole board is a man not trying to impress anyone, but rather telling them like it is, what he has learned, what prison has taught him, that often his soul sucked out of him, but he is no longer a danger to society. Red has found the person he could never find, himself. And that smile when he finds Andy working on the beach in the sun, it reaches in and strokes our soul. A brilliant performance that earned the actor an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, richly deserved.

Tim Robbins is equally good as Andy, a man who truly does not belong in Shawshank. An innocent man. Much of what he finds in prison bewilders him, bull queers, men who force sex on other men because they can, bugs in the food, corruption within the ranks of the guards, regular beatings, even murder. Yet there is also kindness and compassion such as when he bargains with information with the toughest guard in the place for beer for his friends, the old librarian feeding his beloved bird the maggots in the food, Andy playing Mozart to the men, Andy building a proper library for the men, and helping the corrupt Warden hide hundreds of thousands in dirty money.

Character actor James Whitmore is wonderful as Boggs, the lifer not expecting to be paroled in his seventies and terrified of the world outside when he gets out. He goes as long as he can before he hangs himself in a boarding house. Jail had become his one constant, his home. Without it he was lost.

A masterful film and beautiful created story about friendship, deep abiding friendship. The kind that sustains you through the worst times in life, the kind of love that never has to be proven or spoke of, it just exists.

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