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The Shawshank Redemption begins in a courtroom, with the audience cast as the jury. We are given two opposing stories to listen to, one from the district attorney and one from the accused, Andy Dufresne. Speaking in a quiet and reserved manner, Andy maintains that he wasn’t the one to murder his wife and the man with whom she was having an affair. However, the ambiguous flashback to the night of the murders doesn’t illuminate much for the audience. After the jury convicts Andy of murder, the judge tells him he seems like a “particularly icy and remorseless man,” and sentences him to two life sentences. We still don’t know whether or not Andy is guilty, but it doesn’t matter. He is sent to jail and loses the ability to tell his story in his own defense.
Instead, another inmate named Red picks up Andy’s narrative. Although Red admits he didn’t think much of Andy when he first shuffled into the prison yard, his opinion changed once he actually interacted with him.
“He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say… I liked Andy from the start.”
Andy’s key traits are his calm, inscrutable manner and seeming emotional detachment. At most given moments in the film, it’s hard to know exactly what he’s thinking just by observing him. One can see why the judge thought he was “icy” and the other inmates think he’s a “cold fish.” Andy eventually admits that even his wife found him hard to read.
However, as Andy’s longtime friend, Red serves as something we didn’t see at Andy’s trial: a character witness. Through Red’s confident narration, Andy’s reserve is transformed into an admirable quality. Andy doesn’t break down blubbering on the first night, and his placidity becomes a useful attitude to have in prison. It’s Red who convinces us that Andy is worthy of our interest and investment in his story.
Because Red is the one telling the story, he chooses what to focus on. His narration grants Andy a measure of dignity and privacy, two things that are in short supply within the prison. Red is matter-of-fact about Andy’s abuse from the hands of Bogs and his cronies, stating that, “I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.” However, neither Red’s narration nor the camera, which quickly pans away from Andy’s beatings, linger upon these traumatic experiences. Soon enough Red is reliving the fond memory of a warm May afternoon and cold beers, which his good friend Andy was able to obtain through his generosity and cleverness. He tells us about beautiful opera music crackling over loudspeakers, and the persistence it took to build “the best prison library in New England.” This is the Andy Dufresne he wants the audience to know and remember.
By the time that 19 years have passed, Andy receives another opportunity to have his story heard, one that is totally unexpected. When the newly-arrived Tommy hears why Andy was incarcerated, he realizes that he shared a cell at another prison with the real murderer of Andy’s wife. The man had taken advantage of his captive audience to relive the tales of his ill deeds. The other inmates, including Red, are floored to discover that Andy really is as innocent as he claimed all along. Now that he has someone to support his story, Andy goes to the Warden in hopes of getting a retrial.
Unfortunately for Andy, the Warden is only concerned with putting his own interests first, and as the man in charge, he gets to decide which stories do and do not get told. As the book-keeper of the Warden’s crooked financial schemes, Andy is too valuable and knows too much to be set loose. Instead, Andy gets dragged off to solitary confinement and Tommy is killed by a guard.With Tommy dead, Andy will never be able to officially set the record of his past straight.
Instead, he authors the next chapter of his life story, and incredibly, he is able to fulfill it. The fact that the audience only knows what Red knows about Andy effectively conceals the film’s biggest twist: Andy has been slowly tunneling through the wall of his cell for 17 years. His emergence from the river in the pouring rain is a baptism that leads to a new life and a new beginning. As part of his shady money laundering for the Warden, Andy created a fictional man named Randall Stevens. Now Andy inhabits this figment of his imagination in order to empty Stevens’s bank accounts. He mails the Warden’s incriminating ledger to the local paper, leaving it up to the reporters to spread the true story of the rampant corruption at Shawshank.
To Red, Andy mails a blank postcard from the Texas-Mexico border, which indicates that he intends on fulfilling the dream of starting his own hotel in a little seaside town. Red is left to fill in the rest of the details himself, and he pictures Andy happily driving a red convertible along the Pacific Coast. In control of his own story at long last, Andy gets to choose which characters to include.The fact that Andy writes Red into his ending is all the more meaningful since he knows that Red always struggled to imagine a life for himself beyond the prison walls.
Besides his support from Red, the reason Andy is able to survive and eventually escape Shawshank is because he stays true to who he was on the outside. Simple pleasures like books and music help him (and the other inmates) keep going day-to-day. His interests and talents, geology and financial savvy, are the tools he uses to escape. He first gets the idea of tunneling out when he starts to carve his name – and therefore his identity – into the crumbly wall of his cell.
On the other hand, Red states repeatedly that he’s been institutionalized and can only survive in prison. When Andy gives him a harmonica, an instrument he used to play before going to prison, he seems uncomfortable with this reminder of his past. Over time, however, his thoughts on leaving prison change. Brooks, the old librarian, commits suicide because he could not adjust to life on the outside. Andy is shown reading Brooks’s last letter aloud to Red, their friend’s sad, lonely death serving as a cautionary tale.
By the time that Red’s next parole hearing rolls around, he is tired of trying to feed the board the same manufactured statement that he thinks they want to hear. Instead, he’s honest about what he thinks of his life:
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, 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.”
His parole is approved, and the truth literally sets Red free.
As Red’s story ends on a hopeful note for the future, he finds Andy on the beach in Zihuatanejo sanding the paint off of an old boat, preparing to make it new again. The vibrancy and vastness of the ocean and sand, compared to the color palette of dull grays and browns in the rest of the film, makes Shawshank seem like a bad dream, something that happened in another lifetime. Andy’s quote from earlier in the film is brought to mind: “You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.”