For many people, this quarantine feels like a prolonged Sunday. Extra family time (and duties), extra free time, extra boredom, extra baking. Especially baking. People are baking like never before.
But it also means extra opportunities to rewatch classic movies! Last night I got “The Shawshank Redemption” on Czech Tv and I decided to give it my To Say Nothing of the Cat treatment. Ready to revisit this all-time favorite following the stages of the Hero’s Journey? Let’s go!
Act 1 – The Outside and the Inside
We meet Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) first, while he is on trial for his wife’s murder. We are introduced very early on with one of Andy’s main traits: he is introverted, unable to communicate his emotions effectively. The judge describes him as “particularly icy and remorseless”. This will be the essence of Andy’s personal journey.
The evidence against him is crushing, and Andy is sentenced to serve two life sentences for the double murder of his wife and her lover. That’s his dramatic Call to Adventure.
Right after, the scene moves to the Shawshank penitentiary. Inside, Red (Morgan Freeman) has been serving 20 years and is being interviewed for parole.
He tries his best, all the right words are there: he fails. He plays by the system’s rules, and yet the system fails him. Why?
These two sequences back to back form an interesting parallel: both protagonists are tested, and fail, at the same time. The scene is set for both characters.
The want/need conflict is clear. They will think they want freedom. But in order to get that, they have to discover what they really need.
Andy’s ordeal will take him to processing grief, explore his deeper feelings and become able to express them; Red’s challenge will be to overcome his personal boundaries, discovering that the freedom of the mind is even more precious than the physical one.
Crossing the Threshold: entering Shawshank. The movie takes its time to make the audience feel how heavy the transition feels. The armored van comes in; sets of heavy gates open and close one after another;
the new prisoners (“fresh fish”) have to parade in a humiliating display in front of the other inmates, they are stripped naked, showered and disinfected. It’s a literal sequence of losing one skin to begin a new life. This extraordinary world will not be a very welcoming one.
The other relevant characters are quickly introduced. We get to meet the Antagonist – Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) and his brutal “heavy“, Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown).
As well as other inmates that will have a relevant role in the story. In particular, Brooks (James Whitmore), the old keeper of the prison library who will have an important Mentor quality;
and Bogs (Mark Rolston), who will haunt Andy’s permanence at Shawshank with violence and the constant threat of abuse – a Guardian.
The relationship between Andy and Red is established early on as being of true sympathy and friendship. They are presented as likable and complement each other quite well. It’s easy to identify with their qualities: Andy is educated, well-mannered, patient, a dreamer. Red, on the other hand, is pragmatic, a people’s person, knows how to get things done and is a gifted businessman.
Together, they hold the entire show. They will learn some important lessons from each other, and I suggest they are both protagonists of the story, much like Frodo and Sam from The Lord of the Rings.
Act 2 – Breaking Bad
In the central part of the story, Andy learns (and masters) the prison rules; while Red understands how powerful a dream can be.
It all starts with an unexpected twist (a new inciting accident). A lottery to choose which inmates will receive a little distraction from the everyday routine.
Thanks to their “special connections”, Red and his mates get the job. While working on the roof, Andy overhears as Captain Hadley complains about some inheritance money he received. “The government will take most of it”, he protests.
This is the moment for Andy to use his mundane abilities from “the outside”. He was vice-director in a bank, a legitimate tax expert. He dares to offer his professional opinion to the Captain.
It’s a dangerous gamble, but it works.
(Almost) free financial advice from an expert is an offer few would refuse. The other inmates cannot believe their eyes as Andy works his magic and is – literally – taken under the dragon’s wing. It’s a Faustian event, a “deal with the devil” trope that evokes familiar feelings and memories in the audience.
Andy enjoys his well deserved break with a triumphant smile on his face. He knows he passed an important test and achieved something important.
This is a turning point in the story. A Test.
Several key events happen now: Andy puts his talent to good use and enjoys a lightning-fast career as the only tax-advisor-in-for-two-life-terms of the region. Given that one of his hobbies is geology, he knows the value of a gem in the dirt.
He soon becomes every guard’s personal favorite. After all, nothing says “friendship” like “I will make you save a lot of tax money”.
As a little benefit, his personal tormenter Bogs reaches the end of his career as prison rapist and thug, as Captain Hadley reminds him – with a definite amount of brute force – that nobody messes with his tax rain man. That’s one of the privileges of a working deal with the Devil himself, you don’t have to worry about the lesser evils;
And speaking of the Devil, He is summoned. Warden Norton emerges as if from the shadows – a Doctor Faustus reference again – and gets acquainted with the prison wonder boy. Very aptly, Andy is reading the Bible when the two meet. This marks more or less the half-time for the movie, so it’s a clear turning point.
Apparently unrelated to all that, Andy asks Red for a large Rita Hayworth poster to cover one of his walls. At the moment, we just think it’s something to entertain himself. While in prison, a man needs something to keep his mind occupied, after all.
He also asks for a small geology hammer. Just something to practice his hobby. In a very fitting turn of events, it is the librarian Brooks who delivers it (hidden in a Bible).
This is – I think – a key element. Brooks embodies more than any other character the Mentor quality. Not only he meets Andy early on and teaches him the importance to have “pet projects” (in his case, literally a pet bird) to survive in prison; he also provides him with the “magic object” Andy will need to complete the quest. Brooks is a meek, quiet and gentle man (qualities Andy respects); is the librarian, and Andy moves to the library to set up his office as prison tax advisor becoming de facto his assistant.
More than that, when he is released from prison, Brooks faces the challenges of having to go back to the Outside unprepared.
After spending too long in prison, “a man becomes institutionalized”, Red explains.
That’s the danger of losing one’s way in the Extraordinary World. The return to the Outside, to its complex if sometimes mundane reality, could reveal impossible to face.
That’s exactly what happens to Brooks, who fails to complete his Return. This will be a hard lesson that will leave an important trace on the protagonists.
From his sacrifice, Andy learns that he needs to keep his dreams alive, and in a heated discussion, he tries to convince Red and his friends about it.
Red is still skeptical, granted, and he warns everybody of the risks of living with the head in the clouds.
But the seed has been planted and it will bear fruit later in the third act.
At the first opportunity, Andy puts his words in practice. When he receives news that his grant request to expand the library has been approved, he wants to offer a little celebration to all the inmates.
He puts a record of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro on the intercom, to everyone’s bewilderment, and he knows the Powers that Be will not be happy, but the expression of definitive satisfaction on his face says “it was totally worth it”.
Life goes on in the Inside. Andy keeps earning the Warden’s trust and becomes his personal accountant, keeping track of all his income – most of which comes from corruption schemes realized exploiting cheap forced labor, sign that Norton may well be a Bible-thumper but he is certainly not a holy man.
Andy becomes strangely complacent in this role. As he explains Red, he used to be a completely honest accountant, when he was Outisde.
He became corrupted once Inside. Which says something about “rehabilitation”. Red is listening and learning.
This is a key moment in the story: Andy has now completely mastered the extraordinary world. He has climbed the prison’s social ladder so high, he cannot proceed further. If he wants to progress on his Hero’s Journey, he will have to find a new meaning, and begin his Journey Back.
3rd Act – the Shawshank Redemption
The “search for meaning” is embodied by a new inmate. Tommy is a young man, a “rock and roll” type with an attitude, sentenced for repeated petty thefts. Immediately likable.
Andy – a mid-age man without family – starts a surrogate father-son relationship with him. Tommy becomes “his new project”, as Red puts it.
Tommy is indeed full of resources. He may indeed know the true identity of the guy who killed Andy’s wife: one of his former inmates.
The evidence is crushing. This could change everything!
But when Andy and Tommy inform the Warden, he stages a plot and has the young man – the only witness – killed.
Norton himself informs Andy about the “tragedy”, and them locks him up in “the hole” (the maximum security cell) for two entire months, a brutal and inhuman punishment for a crime he didn’t commit.
This is the moment of the highest dramatic intensity and clearly the Dark Cave for Andy. It is also figuratively symbolized by him being imprisoned in a hole (a cave) in the dark, for a prolonged period of time.
This is the moment when Andy undergoes a transformation. Having understood that Norton and Bayley are ultimately corrupted, he doesn’t want to cooperate with them anymore.
Being a member of that infernal court doesn’t interest him anymore. The integrity of his values, tested by the (relatively) comfortable life he was living in Shawshank, prevails.
The Warden doesn’t want to let him go, of course. He doesn’t want to lose his golden eggs goose. And he retorts to violent threats, to Andy’s physical safety and to his library.
Norton, come on, burning books definitely crosses a line! “Morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them!” (quote).
This triggers the final transformation for Andy. It’s a hard-earned Reward. Andy realizes that his hard-to-get personality had a role in pushing his wife away from him, an event that ultimately led to her death.
He processes his grief while in isolation, and is able to confess his feelings to Red in a revealing conversation.
Always the man with a plan, he shares his dream for what to do after. There is a place by the sea, in Mexico. He and Red should meet there, one day.
Red confesses that he is not ready for it.
His personal process is the mirror image to Andy’s: Red started the journey as a master of the Inside, but he would be completely lost Outside.
And so it’s Andy’s turn to take him by the hand. In a conversation that sounds and feels like a goodbye, he gives his friend strangely detailed instructions.
Red is perplexed, but memorizes every detail. It sounded like crazy talk, but one never knows.
Then, the movie enters its breath-taking and technically perfect Resolution. A beautifully crafted device that uses a Russian-doll structure, changes of point of view and flashback to give each plotline its ideal ending.
Andy takes advantage of his position as Warden Norton’s most trusted man.
The Warden had thought he had him under complete control and grew complacent. Big mistake, he should have known that “Pride goeth before destruction” (Proverbs, 16:18).
Andy disappeared into thin air, bringing with him the Warden’s ledger, bank account, best suit and shoes.
Red cannot hide pride and satisfaction in his voice as he narrates what happened.
It took him almost 20 years, but Andy Dufresne managed to escape the Shawshank penitentiary, and by crawling through those narrow tunnels (a clear symbol of Death and Rebirth) he crosses a new threshold and goes back Outside.
Here, Andy proves to be the Master of the Two Worlds: he combines the skills he had about the (ordinary) financial world with the
criminal opportunistic attitude developed while inside – in the extraordinary world of Shawshank – to deliver a crushing and definitive, almost Biblical justice upon his persecutors.
The corruption and violence at Shawshank are exposed to the press,
Captain Hadley arrested for multiple cases of murder,
and Warden Norton prefers a coward’s way out, rather than accepting the Divine Justice on himself.
That’s it, it’s the perfect ending for Andy’s arc. Now it’s time for Red to pass a final test.
He faces once again the parole board. This time he is much older than the officer sent to judge him. “Am I rehabilitated?” he says.
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then, a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are, but I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your forms, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit”.
This, of course, means he has passed his test. He is able to see beyond the veil, he is not “institutionalized”.
Red gets out (another threshold) and decides to live by the words he learned while at Shawshank. Not only watching himself life and age, but taking his destiny in his own hands. He embraces hope.
He, too, brings the lessons he learned while Inside to the Outside world.
He finds Andy’s note, crosses the border with Mexico (another threshold!),
and the two great friends get to meet one another in this Afterlife. Each has passed its tests, Andy and Red are Masters of the Two Worlds – able to switch between dimensions at will.
They know that reality can be fantastic, and that fantasy can be real. The two worlds need one another. Their hero’s journeys are complete, they are ready to start a New Beginning in a brave new world.
That was it!
I hope you enjoyed, at least as I did, revisiting this timeless masterpiece. If you want to know more, here is a well-made article with trivia and interesting facts about the movie (for example, how Tom Cruise could almost have ended in the leading role).
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