Despite its setting being a jail, “The Shawshank Redemption” strangely captures viewers in its warm hold, making them members of the family. There are a number of films that provide viewers with vivid experiences and create swift, shallow emotions. This movie, however, moves slowly, employing the quiet, perceptive voice of the narrator to include viewers in a tale of a prison community. It holds deeper meaning than a majority of other movies, being themed on continuity within a lifetime, on the basis of hope and friendship (Ebert).
Interestingly, although the movie’s hero is Andy Dufresne, (condemned ex-banker played by Tim Robbins), viewers don’t get to view actions from his standpoint. The movie kicks off with Dufresne being given life penalties for two murders – his wife’s and her lover’s. After this scene, the movie never shows his outlook again, but moves to the outlooks of the prison community, especially Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (another inmate with a life sentence, played by Morgan Freeman). Redding narrates his recollection of the time Dufresne first walked in (“looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over”); the former, apparently, erroneously predicted that Dufresne would not be able to survive prison (Ebert).
Right from Dufresne’s first appearance to the culmination of the movie, viewers only perceive Dufresne from others’ perspective, including his best mate, Red; Warden Norton; the elderly librarian, Brooks; prison guards; and fellow inmates. Red is the deputy who viewers are able to relate to; the redemption, eventually, is Red’s. Dufresne’s example proves to viewers that one needs to always have hope, remain true to oneself, be patient, set a subtle, straightforward example and leap at the opportunity one is granted. “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really,” he tells Red. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” (Ebert)
I believe Shawshank’s structure doesn’t revolve around Dufresne, but around how viewers relate to him–their approval, interest, and sympathy. If Dufresne was portrayed as the courageous, endearing hero, Shawshank wouldn’t have held so much mystery and would be just like any other movie. In the end, as Dufresne is existential he doesn’t depend on luck and chance, but ensures he makes decisions which afford him control over his life.
Dufresne displays freedom’s awful existential nature, when he plays the recording over the public access system knowing full well that his action will have consequences. He doesn’t object to his solitary confinement; rather, he believes it was the most stress-free time he spent (Ebert).
Dufresne is a dependable person who loves to assist other people in reaching their complete potential. For instance, he teaches Tommy and others to ensure they are able to pass high school-equivalent exams and strives to ensure the prison’s library is fully stocked with a broad range of books for inmates. Hope doesn’t belong to existential thinking. True existentialists go with the flow, without believing in the afterlife or in a better future (Klassen).
Dufresne constantly displays hope and urges fellow inmates to do the same. He relies on the bond he has with Red, who provides him numerous things necessary for successfully escaping. Clearly, Dufresne cares for his friend, leaves money behind for him and invites him to Mexico, none of which is existential. Existentialists consider man to be a free, self-sufficient loner (Klassen).
Dufresne dreams and provides self-motivation, envisioning Zihuatanejo’s sandy beaches and blue waters rather than dwelling on his current circumstances. Real existentialists wouldn’t fantasize this way; instead, their focus would only be on real life. Dufresne demonstrates human existential is when resisting The Sisters’ and Boggs’ advances (Klassen).
Dufresne adopts the tough course, choosing to take control of his own destiny. Instead of losing hope and remaining imprisoned until death, he fabricates his escape. He never lays blame for his incarceration on external circumstances. He admits to being led to prison by the ramifications of his own actions. Despite not being guilty of murder, Dufresne feels he is to blame for pushing away his wife: “She was beautiful. God I loved her. I just didn’t know how to show it, that’s all. I killed her, Red. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I drove her away. And that’s why she died, because of me” (Klassen).
Dufresne’s character embodies several existential qualities. He is a determined, alert and exceptional man who leads life based on his personal ethical code, makes choices for himself, and attempts to maintain control. He goes all-out to regain his freedom. He is, in the end, an existential character (Klassen). Moviegoers prefer exciting films and exciting titles draw them to the theatres in hordes. They are wary of movies themed on “redemption” and are usually not excited by the idea of a movie which has much serious work put into it. However, they seek hope even in channels of entertainment and any movie that provides it will probably enjoy staying power, irrespective of whether it immediately attracts audiences or not (Ebert).
DoL. Criteria for Evaluating a Film Essay. n.d. 14 February 2017.
Ebert, Roger. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. 17 October 1999. 14 February 2017.
Klassen, Anika. Andy Dufresne, an Existential Hero? 28 January 2014. 14 February 2017.