THREE STARS – Searching, Engaging

Catastrophe can overtake a person in a moment.  Due to actions of our own or by forces beyond our control, our lives can become imprisoned in impossible situations.  In those moments, we can either respond with a spirit of hope or a spirit of despair.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) experiences this reality when he is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in Shawshank Prison, though he is innocent of any crime.  “Shawshank Redemption” is the story of his hope which fuels his survival.

There is no more oppressive visual representation of despair than the walls of Shawshank.  As the camera pans their grotesque shapes they have an almost mystical quality to them.

Red (Morgan Freeman) describes the enslaving experience of being within those walls:  “The walls begin as something you hate.  As the years go by you get used to them, until finally you depend on them.”

This truth that tragedy can become a way of life, and despair a trusted friend, is a deeply spiritual and social message.  In many ways our society as a whole has given up hope and come to depend on walls to protect and insulate us.  This is exemplified in part by the fact that in California over the last 20 years, we have not built one new university, yet we have built 18 new prisons.  Seeming to have given up hope in educating our populace, we are committed instead to providing for their incarceration.

But where does this lead?  If the walls of enslavement become our trusted friends, then will we become unable to live free of their custody?  The film answers this question in the life of an old prisoner, Brooks (James Whitmore), when he is released after 50 years in Shawshank.  Unable to dream or create a connection of friendship or find meaning to his life, Brooks commits suicide.  This ultimate act of despair demonstrates the reality of his spiritual void.

In clear opposition to this despair is Andy’s unrelenting hope.

A closed and private person, Andy exemplifies a strength that, though misunderstood and isolating, is nevertheless admired.  When told that “Hope is a dangerous thing,” he responds, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”  This transcendent value of trusting the future and having hope in it mentally and emotionally, is the strength within this private man.

What we as the viewers and the other prisoners don’t know is that for twenty years, and through ingenious planning and unusual opportunities, Andy is feeding his hope with concrete actions to escape.  Perhaps it is this combination of spirit and action which makes Andy’s hope so vibrant.  When he shares his dream of the future, he is accused by Red of having a pipe dream, a useless wish that only makes his enslavement more painful.

But we eventually discover that his dream is not without feet and his hope is not without action.  Andy’s hope is real and finally realized.  In becoming free, Andy also becomes involved in setting things right at Shawshank.

Shawshank is under the control of a hypocritical warden who spouts Bible verses while allowing his prisoners to be brutally beaten, demeaned and murdered.  Though the warden serves as a villain, the film’s caricatured Christian typecast weakens its message.  Aside from the warden’s actions, the prison, in and of itself, with it’s walls, its violence, it’s dehumanizing routine and its inability to rehabilitate is also in need of redemption.

“Shawshank Redemption” is an engaging film which begins to unwrap the component parts of hope.  The inward strength, the outward action and giving hope to others were all demonstrated by Andy.  If the film had given us insight into the source of hope and the spiritual basis for Andy’s faith, it would have been even more powerful.