Why It Works: The Shawshank Redemption

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


Shawshank. A single word that instantly conjures up feelings and images in even the most casual movie fan. The movie that, no matter how many times it comes on TV, you always have to watch. But why are we so compelled by a movie about convicted criminals? What makes a 2.5 hour drama set almost entirely in one place so damn watchable? How did a film overshadowed in 1994 by PULP FICTION and FORREST GUMP become one of the most acclaimed films of all time? Well, I'm glad I asked. Here's why it works:


We get a glimpse of Andy Dufresne at the top of the film. We're not sure what to think of the accused murderer yet, but something tells us he's not a killer. Maybe it's because it's the adorable Tim Robbins, or maybe it's because he's not making much of an effort to convince the prosecution of his innocence, but we see someone defeated and heartbroken, not someone trying to weasel his way out of a conviction. From here, we cut to Red, nervously asserting his reformation before the parole board. We have in Morgan Freeman another insanely likable actor (and soothing narrator), but it's the casual, everyman, and almost paternal qualities of the character which make us immediately identify with him rather than see him as a criminal. Once Andy (the tall drink of water with a silver spoon up his ass), gets to Shawshank, we still only see a blank slate for the first handful of scenes. Once he manipulates Captain Hadley into turning tarring the roof into a relaxing day of beer and sunshine, though (and doesn't even take any beer for himself), we finally see in him a witty, rebellious good guy and want nothing but success for him.

How do you not love this smug bastard?


THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION spends roughly two hours without any set changes or serious plot development. The idea of Andy either escaping or clearing his name isn't even on the table for most of the film. At first, we're treated to a series of short stories based around the same characters: "Andy on the Rooftop," "Sisterly Love", "Rita Hayworth and the Rock Hammer," "Brooks Was Here," "Mozart and the Hole," and "Tommy Comes to Town." It's not until Tommy divulges information which might prove Andy's innocence that we have a goal to latch onto, but these other stories keep us rapt in the meantime. In fact, while most movies bash one primary goal into your head for two hours, sometimes to the point of tedium, SHAWSHANK confidently (and riskily) relies on the characters and subplots to carry the audience until freedom becomes a possibility.

Only three women have speaking roles in this film... if you include Rita Hayworth.


Unfortunately, Tommy's attempt to clear Andy does not go as planned (pour one out for the greaser). Seemingly accepting defeat, we see Andy as cold and distant as in the beginning of the film, finally delivering what sounds like a goodbye speech to Red. Instead of a grisly suicide, however, we are treated to one of the most satisfying and memorable conclusions of any film to date. The rock hammer, the pin-ups, the warden's shoes, the length of rope, Andy's alternate on-paper identity... all the little clues and setups peppered throughout the film are paid off in Andy's glorious shit-covered escape. Not only do we revel in Andy's master plan and the fate of Warden Norton, but we see Red granted parole, truly a changed man. As the two friends embrace on the sands of Zihuatanejo and the credits roll, we can't help but feel liberated, moved, and thrilled by a story which delivers everything we could have asked for.

This reminds me- I should do one of these on BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.


I know this word gets thrown around a lot, but Frank Darabont's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a masterpiece. Perfectly cast, impeccably written and directed (shout out to Stephen King for penning the original novella), it's a story of choosing life over not just physical imprisonment, but mental, emotional, and spiritual captivity as well. Red's final monologue to the parole board is a result of 19 years of friendship with Andy Dufresne and a realization that we are responsible for our own actions and in control of our own destiny. It's easy to become institutionalized by any lifestyle, and it's on us to escape that crushing complacency. Get busy living, or get busy dying. That's goddamn right.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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