Friday, August 1, 2008

The Shawshank Redemption: Ascendancy of Hope


So, today is my last day working at Ye Olde Grocery Store, which I have been working at for eleven years. Today also happens to be the day that I have finished The Shawshank Redemption film review that I have been writing this past week. Today is also the feast day of St. Peter in chains, that is, the feast day that commemorates Saint Peter being released from his chains in prison by an angel and his escape thereof, as found in Acts 12: 6-11. All three a coincidence? I. Don't. Think so.

Well, the film review was a little rushed to fit, but still. Enjoy.

The following is not so much a "film review" in the streamlined sense. It is essayistic and retrospective, and assumes that the reader has seen the film at least once. If you have not seen it, then it is recommended you do not read, as it will only spoil the film for you.


The Shawshank Redemption is one of those films so loved by people that it risks becoming impervious to all objective criticism. It seems to have become every man's mirror of catharsis to just about any suffering one may be going through, apparently. So to approach this redemptive glow around the film and offer criticisms will inevitably risk sounding petty. Nonetheless, to name a few up front that could be applied: the film is too episodic; there is too much didactic carriage of the film's themes (characters becoming the writer's mouthpieces); and one sequence in particular that should not have been shown.

There are basically three, to my mind. If these fallouts were anticipated by the filmmaker, the film would have been that much more an impeccable and uniquely American masterpiece - and far more powerful. Though it is with its imperfections, still a masterpiece of sorts.

Before hitting upon those three imperfections, there are the moral ambiguities. They mostly pertain to the dilemma of Andy helping the warden to launder his ill-gotten money - and then Andy taking that money at the end. Moral ambiguities are by no means a detriment to a film, especially a prison film, except for where they may most certainly be misinterpreted, or misappropriated. Here they run the risk of misinterpretation as to what the redemption in the film is, and misappropriation as to where the redemption lies.

There is certainly redemption, but it has nothing really to do with Andy's escape or ironical gain of money. As a sort of materialistic, rudimentary, collateral "redemption", the character of Andy gets a kind in this regard: surely driving a mustang with the top down along the Pacific is better than being sodomized, or held in solitary confinement for two months on end.

But there is a redemption in this film far greater and which is the real redemption. Aside from assessing possible misinterpretation, one must not get too puritanical in these matters. For the film does not go to any great lengths to justify Andy in what he does. There is one scene in which he talks about the injustice of his being in prison, due to being wrongly accused. He goes on to say he has not deserved it and that whatever other wrong he has done in the meantime he has more than certainly paid for, and that a boat and hotel on the beach is not much to ask for. Apparently, gaining more than $300, 000 of laundered money is not much to ask for either. But there is also recognition of his wrongdoing before this scene, in which Andy says that before he came to prison he was straight as an arrow, and that he had to come to prison to become a crook, referring of course to the money laundering.

So, as they say, like, whatever: these parts of the film are morally ambiguous. I would say, nothing more, nothing less. Especially when taken in light of what kind of character Andy is. Andy is a catalyst character. He is time and again referred to as having "feathers too bright", and having a "a sort of force field". He is like Coffee in the lesser film, The Green Mile, only more wily and not so, uhm, Jesus-like. He is almost like the "Randell Stevens" who he "conjures out of thin air" as the possible accused if all the laundered money were to be traced. Andy is a character who, though being real enough, serves as a catalyst. A catalyst for what? Well, a catalyst for Red.

That will be taken up later. But the three imperfections first. While the smaller stories do carry currents with the overarching story, and while there are metaphorical continuities that bind the passage of time, there is a sense throughout the earlier-middle part of the film where there is too much a construct of "episodes", or anecdotes, from one scene to the next.

This is not too great a deal, for the story is being narrated by Red in retrospect; and that sort of thing is conducive to being anecdotic. It's hard for a filmmaker to find his way through such things. Really, the only solution lies in going back through the story in its writing stage and re-setting, and hence reimbursing, the foundations. It's a small criticism, for these scenes pull through and they work themselves out later on. While episodic, they don't simply stand there in the film.

There are the major faults in the film though: the characters becoming mouthpieces for the story's themes. It takes place largely in one scene. The scene where the boys talk amongst themselves after Brooks puts a knife to Haywood's throat after learning that his parole has been approved. There is a real and powerful sense of this being "institutionalized" the very moment when after Brooks drops the knife and starts sobbing, and Red asks Haywood what he did to set Brooks off like that, and Haywood says he came to say farewell, because Brook's parole has been approved. One is startled by this.

But then the writers give us a whopper of a scene where e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is laid out for us. Red goes on about being institutionalized and all of it is simply bang on and nicely squared up - and simply none of it belongs in a film that is about being institutionalized and escape and hope. The entire scope of the film is about these things; the whole arch of the story. When you have that, you do not bring in expository dead weight. What's the point in having a film about such things if the film can't be about it by itself? Herein lays the power of film and of all art. You are penetrating to the mystery without killing it.

The film does this for a moment (penetrating the mystery without killing it) the minute Haywood gives his answer to Red. And the film at that point should have given us no explanation; for then this phenomenon known as "institutionalization" would have been extremely vivid to us, and would have been that much more potently carried through the film to its hope's end.

There are expository scenes of course that do work. One for sure is when Andy gets out of the hole for playing Mozart on all the speakers and has his discussion with Red about hope. The differing states and outlooks of the two characters are given to us. The scene is vital, which brings us to the third imperfection: the depiction of Brooks' suicide.

This was a mistake. Brooks' suicide should have been given through Andy reading the letter, perhaps with Brooks' narration taking place of his, but without giving us the visual information of Brooks killing himself. For one, there is something exploitive about showing the poor old man hanging himself. Second, it ties in with the aforementioned fault of the film, the expositing of the film's themes through characters as mouthpieces. This is the major objection to showing Brooks' suicide: that, just as not having the characters explain "institutionalization" would have made "institutionalization" that much more vivid, so the whole deal with "what happens to Brooks" would have been more powerful if it was not shown, but given to us instead through the narration of the letter - perhaps exchanged back and forth with brief shots of Brooks on "the outside".

This would have leant the discussion about hope between Red and Andy further poignancy. Picture the part where Red says to Andy, "It's [hope] got no use on the inside. You better get used to that." And Andy answers back, "Like Brooks did?" Clarity through obfuscation.

So this lands one back with Red. Andy's his catalyst. Note especially around the beginning of the film, how Red's eyes linger on Andy in scene after scene. The film does not underline it too much, but it's there. He's drawn in by something, as though being called from a distance; something perhaps he desires in spite of himself. He knows it is something dangerous; not morally dangerous, but dangerous to his own set ways of prison-life.

Red is the "Only guilty man in Shawshank", by his own admission. This is interesting. No one in Shawshank will, apparently, admit his own guilt. Red does. He can't try otherwise. There's nothing dramatic or outspoken about his regret. It's a kind of accepted weariness; a kind of death. Reality has busted his chops, and he's not going to kick against the goad.

But he's stirred by Andy. We find here the fulcrum on which the arch of the film turns. We are introduced into the story through Red's narration. He narrates what is the story of this character Andy and his own friendship with him, down through the years of prison life. He recounts all the things that happened, not giving us a single glimpse into his own psyche, not a cent - nothing.

But then later, later, we hit upon the pivot: this is Red's story, taking place in the afterglow, being narrated in the short span just before being released from prison and being on the bus. And the "redemption" of the title of the film is his, to which Andy's escape through a half mile pipe of "shit smelling foulness" is but a shadowy anticipation.

And Red's redemption consists "merely" of this: that, once being released from prison, he is to make a move according to free will in the unfamiliar, alienating, spatial freedom of the outside world, which oddly enough to his discovery, and to Brooks before him, is no automatic harbinger of interior freedom, is no banisher of fear. Indeed, it is very much the opposite in that it shows up the interior prison that has been there all along and which every person has to face. Red's redemption consists in this: outside of prison, to choose to continue his friendship with Andy.

It is very significant. For while their friendship inside of prison may not have been based solely on convenience or practicality, the fact is that, while in prison it was never necessary for Red to be faced with the real meaning, the real basis, for carrying on that friendship. It was never necessary to engage that friendship out of free will.

This is what lends so much poignancy to the film's ending sequences. And it is of course the film's last moments where Red discovers hope that are the most beautiful. When the two meet on the beach, it is not the fact that the two friends are meeting again that catches you in the throat; it's something else. It is that Red has made the choice, and here he is, to take his own words when he was trying to convince the parole board of his "rehabilitation" all those years, "a changed man" - and he really is. Hope. Totally unsentimental, The Shawshank Redemption may be the one and only film to have the two-friends-meeting-on-the-beach scene that does it right. Graceful, deliberate and august, the scene hits the perfect note.

Those so-called film purists who are of the opinion that the beach scene should not be in the film don't understand how the film's ending is Red's beginning.

Getting back to Red's found freedom. He rejects despair by not looking to himself, but by looking to following the path that Andy has laid down for him to follow. Strange and poetic directions Andy gives to Red. To find that particular field and that particular oak and find that particular rock to pry up and find something he doesn’t know about. Red says to Andy in prison how something like the Pacific would scare him near to death, something that big.

But he follows, and in following, like we who are called to ultimate beatitude in heaven, he finds he is but at the beginning of his journey. He follows this belief, which before he was scared to give even a faint voice to, that there is some eternal basis to our pursuance, that there is a purpose, a unique purpose we are called to. And that belief, or the pursuance thereof, what does it hinge upon? Hope.

Hope in a certain sense demands smallness. Red begins to give voice to each hope as it comes to him, in this freedom of redemption in time, and the pursuing of beatitude:

I hope to make it across the border.

I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.

I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.

2 comments:

colleen4 said...

Your last day at the store? What?? I'm a feelin' a wee bit out of the loop here....

Fr. Dwight Longenecker said...

...and the word 'pacific' means 'peace'