First things first. If you haven’t watched The Shawshank Redemption so far, please do the following:
- Compulsory: Find a DVD of the movie and watch it. If you happen to live in a small town where the only available copy of the DVD is with a curmudgeonly octagenarian neighbour of yours who insists on watching it every night and wouldn’t even dream of giving it to you, even for a few hours, go online and order yourself a copy. I know you were expecting me to suggest that you kill that cranky old coot, but remember: any man who would watch this movie every night deserves to live, whatever his other qualities.
- Optional: Once you’ve finished Step 1, consider reading the rest of this post. I plan to discuss a big spoiler here, so don’t tell me you haven’t been warned.
I’m serious about this, okay? Really, don’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie.
Now that the formalities have been dispensed with, let me get on with it.
The Shawshank Redemption spends most of its running time in establishing the steady rhythm of prison life. Even the establishment of Andy’s innocence and the jailer’s subsequent cover-up is done without unseemly haste. By giving itself space to breathe, the movie draws us in so surely that we find ourselves as “institutionalized” as the inmates themselves.
Apart from the pacing, which is a brave choice for a Hollywood movie, the other interesting choice is the use of a voiceover narrative. That the voice is that of Morgan Freeman, who plays one of the inmates and Andy’s closest friend, is definitely a plus. But narratives in general are tricky: if you don’t do it right, it would just seem like you just didn’t write the scenes well enough and needed the help of a narrator to explain things.
If you’ve read the Stephen King novella on which the movie is based (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), you will notice that the narrative follows the novel’s text to a good extent. A lot of it is in terms of commentary on a particular scene. In the one where Andy locks himself up in the room with the public address system and plays a Mozart opera on the loudspeakers, Red (Freeman) says:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. 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.
Now, this is beautiful prose, but it doesn’t add anything to what you already realize when you see what happens. Like I said, redundancy. But then, a curious thing happens. Maybe it’s the timbre of Freeman’s voice, but you grow used to hearing it in the background. You begin to look forward to it, even if all it provides is a postscript to the events unfolding on screen.
I didn’t notice this on my initial viewing. Not even in the next couple of times after that. But there was this moment recently, when I was watching the movie on TV, that it struck me. There is a scene where Andy seems to have lost all hope, after the warden ensures that the only man who could’ve helped exonerate him is silenced. Red learns that Andy is now is possession of a stout length of rope, and lies awake all night worrying about whether his friend might have been pushed too far. And sure enough, the next morning at roll call, Andy doesn’t step out of his cell.
Darabont paces this scene deliberately, drawing out the suspense until we finally see the inside of Andy’s cell and find nobody there. It is a nice little moment of surprise, because nothing has really prepared us for it. But that is all I felt at that moment: a bit of surprise. A little later, you hear Red’s voice, over a montage of shots of the subsequent manhunt:
In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison.
Even today when I watch The Shawshank Redemption, I find that Andy’s escape really registers emotionally only after Red has said spoken of it. I guess in some ways, it’s another form of institutionalization.