Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Williams passes his Board of Education test with a "C+ average" - a brief glimmer of a smile crosses Andy's face as he is told the news while huddling in solitary. When Williams is summoned to speak to the warden in an outside, gated area, Norton offers him a cigarette and then begins: "We've got a situation here. I think you can appreciate that...I have to know if what you told Dufresne was the truth...Would you be willing to swear before a judge and jury, having placed your hand on the Good Book and taken an oath before Almighty God Himself?" Norton crushes his cigarette with his heel after Tommy vows that everything he said was true, and then betrays him like Judas did Jesus. He casually signals a sniper (Hadley) from a rooftop to blast four bullets into Tommy's chest - an overhead shot of the young convict's murdered body lying face-down fades to the interior of Andy's solitary cell where he is told, under a blinding light, that Williams died trying to escape.

After the Warden has set up Tommy to be murdered, Andy refuses to run any more of the warden's corrupt scams: "I'm done. Everything stops. Get someone else to run your scams." With rage in his eyes, Norton refuses to be intimidated and beats the insolence of Andy down further with another month in solitary:

Nothing stops! Nothing! Or you will do the hardest time there is. No more protection from the guards. I'll pull you out of that one-bunk Hilton and cast you down with the sodomites. You'll think you got f--ked by a train. And the library? Gone! Sealed off brick by brick! We'll have us a little book-barbecue in the yard. They'll see the flames for miles. We'll dance around it like wild Injuns. Do you understand me? Are you catching my drift? Or am I being obtuse?

As the door slams shut, darkness surrounds him.

After being banished for two months, Andy contritely and despairingly 'confesses' his sin and guilt - taking responsibility for driving his wife away into the arms of another lover, even though he is technically innocent of the murder and is serving a sentence in someone else's place. Red absolves him of the crime as the two lifer friends sit slumped against the yard wall:

Andy: My wife used to say I'm a hard man to know. Like a closed book. Complained about it all the time. She was beautiful. God, I loved her. I just didn't know how to show it, that's all. I killed her, Red. I didn't pull the trigger, but I drove her away and that's why she died - because of me, the way I am.
Red: That don't make you a murderer. Bad husband, maybe. Feel bad about it if you want to, but you didn't pull the trigger.
Andy: No, I didn't. Somebody else did and I wound up in here. Bad luck, I guess.

In the wrong place at the wrong time - "in the path of the tornado" in his own transcendental words, Andy is inspired by a dream of going to the town of Zihuatanejo in Mexico after getting out of prison ("the storm") and opening up a Pacific Ocean coastal beach hotel with a charter fishing boat. It would be a forgiving, guiltless place with "no memory" of the past, with the ocean water washing away all previous 'sins':

It's a little place on the Pacific Ocean. 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. Open up a little hotel right on the beach. Buy some worthless old boat and fix it up new. Take my guests out charter fishing...You know, in a place like that, I could use a man that knows how to get things.

Red, however, has no faith in his ability to "make it on the outside" since he's become an "institutional man" like Brooks. Besides, everyone has the Yellow Pages and he's scared to death of the expansive Pacific Ocean - so unlike the rigid routine of prison life. Red scolds Andy for building up his hopes too much, but Andy yearns for freedom and is determined to fulfill his impossible dreams through his hopes:

Red: I don't think you ought to be doing this to yourself, Andy. This is just s--tty pipe dreams. I mean, Mexico is way the hell down there and you're in here, and that's the way it is.
Andy: Yeah, right. That's the way it is. It's down there and I'm in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'.

[Isn't it ironic that Andy's dream of freedom is ultimately found by escape through a movie poster, and then rebirth through a s--tty drain-pipe!?]

Andy offers his friend one more thing to remember to do when he is eventually released - something buried in a hayfield in Buxton, Maine [is it his gun? - or something else?]:

There's a big hayfield up near Buxton...One in particular. It's got a long rock wall, a big oak tree at the north end. It's like something out of a Robert Frost poem. It's where I asked my wife to marry me. We went there for a picnic and made love under that oak and I asked and she said yes. Promise me, Red. If you ever get out, find that spot. In the base of that wall, you'll find a rock that has no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. A piece of black, volcanic glass. There's something buried under it I want you to have.

[Again, many plot points seem insignificant here, but they will soon take on heightened meaning.]

Fearing that his friend is "talkin' funny," is suicidal and at the "breaking point," Red is even more distressed by his pal's psychological condition when he learns that Andy asked Heywood for a six foot length of rope. Late that evening in the warden's office, he finishes his work with the black ledger and files that document the illegal funneling of payoff funds, places them in the wall safe behind the needle-point sampler, and carries out his expected routine duties for the Warden. He takes Norton's clothes to the laundry and shines his black shoes. As Andy shuffles back to his cell and the lights are extinguished (although lights flash from an approaching lightning storm), Red is terribly worried and wonders whether his friend will survive the long night without killing himself.

During the morning's headcount, Andy doesn't emerge from his cell, and the chief bull guard Haig (Dion Anderson) is glaringly angry - thinking that Andy may have committed suicide: "You'd better be sick or dead in there, I s--t you not. Do you hear me?" The scene cuts away as he exclaims: "Oh, my Holy God" at the entrance to the cell. At the same time, the warden opens up his shoe box to pull out his shiny black shoes - and instead finds Andy's worn work boots. Sirens sound. The warden can't believe Haig's words: "He just wasn't here." Astounded and enraged by the inmate's disappearance, Norton mocks what a religious evangelist might say about a disappearing phantom:

Lord! It's a miracle! Man up and vanished like a fart in the wind. Nothin' left but some damn rocks on the window sill and that cupcake on the wall. (He gestures toward the poster of Raquel Welch hanging on the cell wall.) Let's ask her. Maybe she knows. What say there, fuzzy-britches. Feel like talkin'? Oh, guess not. Why should she be any different? (He holds up some of Andy's carved rock/chess pieces and hurls them indiscriminately at everyone.) This is a conspiracy. That's what this is. It's one big damn conspiracy. And everyone's in on it. Including her!

[Ironically, Norton is right - 'she' is in on it by hiding his escape route.]

The chess piece reveals Andy's miracle - the rock punctures a small hole in the poster - disappearing into the supposedly solid wall where Andy escaped. The warden pushes his finger - and then his whole hand and arm into the torn side of the Raquel poster. He rips off the poster. From the perspective of inside the chiseled tunnel, the camera pulls back to reveal the passageway through which Andy escaped. "In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank Prison," nineteen years after being incarcerated.

All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock-hammer damn near worn down to the nub. I remember thinking it would take a man six hundred years to tunnel through a wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty.

At this juncture, the film provides a flashback to reveal how Andy accomplished the amazing feat. When he first carved his name into the concrete wall in 1949, a chunk of the concrete fell to his feet - and stimulated him to patiently and meticulously carve a way out, and deposit the bits of rock debris in the prison's exercise yard:

Geology is the study of pressure and time. That's all it takes, really. Pressure and time. That and the big god-damn poster. Like I said, in prison, a man'll do most anything to keep his mind occupied. It turns out Andy's favorite hobby was totin' his wall out into the exercise yard a handful at a time.

That last night in 1966 in the warden's office, while Norton was dialing the combination to open the wall safe, Andy concealed the real black ledger and files in the back of his pants and stuck replicas into the safe. He wore Norton's black, shiny shoes back to his cell, and his prison clothes covered over Norton's shirt and tie underneath.

As part of his well-executed plan, he placed the incriminating accountant records and his completed chess pieces (and the warden's clothes) into a large, sealed plastic bag, tied the bag to his ankle with the six foot rope, and squeezed into the tight tunnel shaft. When he emerged through the wall, he timed lightning bolts flashing with deafening thunder [on a night reminiscent of the life-giving lightning strikes in the classic horror film Frankenstein (1931)], to break holes in a sewer conduit, and then inched his way head-first through the raw sewage passage:

Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of s--t-smelling foulness I can't even imagine. Or maybe I just don't want to. Five hundred yards. That's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile.

He is reborn as he emerges from the dark excremental tube (at the beginning of his journey was the primitive 'mother figure' Raquel Welch) and lands, like feces in a toilet, in the waist-deep creek filled with cleansing water. [His emergence out of the prison, from its rectum - literally, is the last reminder of his nightmarish anal rapes.]

In the film's most familiar image, Andy strips off his prison shirt and T-shirt in the middle of the creek and extends his arms up from his half-naked body to the sky - victorious and liberated, in a Christ-like crucifix pose. The camera pulls back from overhead as the showery rain washes down on him in droplets. [The image combines both rebirth and baptismal references.]

The next morning while his escape is being discovered, the camera follows an anonymous man's shiny black shoes as he enters the Maine National Bank in Portland: "Until that moment, he didn't exist - except on paper." He had "all the proper ID" - identified as the 'phantom' Randall Stephens - when he withdrew and closed all his accounts and accepted a cashier's check, purportedly to live abroad. A final request is made to add a package to the bank's outgoing mail.

Mr. Stephens visited nearly a dozen banks in the Portland area that morning. All told, he blew town with better than 370 thousand dollars of Warden Norton's money. Severance pay for nineteen years.

The package is delivered to the offices of the Portland Daily Bugle. The day's newspaper - which figuratively and literally blows the bugle of vengeful judgment on the warden - is tossed down on Norton's desk as he reads it - with the scandalous headlines:

Corruption, Murder at Shawshank - D.A. Has Ledger - Indictments Expected.

Police sirens sound in the distance as they approach the prison. Norton glances at the needle-point - now read as prophetic: "His Judgement Cometh and That Right Soon...," and opens the safe, finding Andy's black-covered Bible instead of the black ledger with evidence of evil-doing. The inside cover is inscribed with Andy's handwriting:

Dear Warden,
You were right.
Salvation lay within.
Andy Dufresne

The leather-bound Bible is, coincidentally, opened to the first page of the Book of Exodus. From there, the pages are hollowed out in the shape of a rock-hammer to conceal his wall-chipping tool. Andy's 'Exodus' was hastened and abetted by the Warden's gift of a Bible. Outside the prison, the D.A. arrests a dumb-founded Captain Hadley who "started sobbing like a little girl when they took him away."

Looking down on the scene, the Warden opens his desk drawer where a handgun sits, loads it with bullets, places it under his chin, and blasts a hole through his head - off camera. The glass window behind his desk shatters into pieces that are speckled with blood, and the gun falls to the floor. Red provides an afterthought about the suicide:

I like to think the last thing that went through his head - other than that bullet - was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him.

During mail call a few days later, Red receives a blank postcard picturing a Texas round-up cowpoke on the back of a giant jackrabbit with the exaggerated caption: "Cattle Punching on a Jack Rabbit" - it's postmarked from Fort Hancock, Texas: "Right on the border. That's where Andy crossed," to fulfill his Mexico dream of freedom. Redeemed, Andy is at the wheel of a red 1969 Pontiac convertible (although it's 1966) on a winding road next to the coast. His legend becomes larger than life for the inmates left behind, who recollect his escapades, while Red is saddened by his friend's escape:

Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of s--t and came out clean on the other side. Andy Dufresne, headed for the Pacific. Those of us who knew him best talk about him often. I swear the stuff he pulled. Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright and when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice, but still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend.

For the third time in the film, Red attends another parole hearing after serving forty years of his life sentence. Times have changed now that it is 1967 - there are four men and one woman on the board. Wiser and more open about his rehabilitation, he answers them straightforwardly with regret for a crime he committed in a past era. He admits and accepts his atoning guilt, confesses his own unworthiness - and is ultimately saved from Shawshank:

Rehabilitated? Well now, let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means...I know what you think it means. To me, it's just a made-up word, a politician's word so that young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?...There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. And 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 and talk some sense to him. Tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone. This old man is all that's left. I gotta live with that. 'Rehabilitated?' That's just a bulls--t 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 s--t.

Red is approved for parole when an automatic stamp marks his papers APPROVED in red ink. Like Brooks (and Andy) before him, the old inmate is released and walks out of the prison gates, rides the bus to Portland, and is led to the same room in the hotel where Brooks had committed suicide. He notices the epitaph scrawled high up on the wall near the ceiling. It is a difficult adjustment to have a job bagging groceries in the Foodway with the freedom to "take a piss" whenever he needs to: "Forty years, I've been asking permission to piss. I can't squeeze a drop without say-so. There's a harsh truth to face. No way I'm gonna make it on the outside." Will he follow in Brooks' fatal footsteps?

He pauses at the window of a pawn shop and notices two different, symbolically-contrasting objects - the camera pans across a row of handguns (echoing what Brooks ultimately chose) and ends the shot focusing on a compass:

All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole so maybe they'd send me back. Terrible thing to live in fear. Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all too well. All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won't have to be afraid all the time. Only one thing stops me. A promise I made to Andy.

Having decided to purchase the compass, Red hitches a ride in the open bed of a red pickup truck [contrasted with Andy's own ride to 'freedom' in an open red convertible] to the country town of Buxton. He walks into a hayfield, navigates with compass in hand to a long rock wall and the big oak tree, and locates a large piece of gleaming black volcanic glass. Under a rock pile is a tin lunch box with an oceanliner on its front - a foreshadowing of the film's final scene. Paranoid, he looks around, sits up against the rock wall, and opens the box. Inside is a plastic bag with money in an envelope (a thousand dollars) and a letter directing him to "come a little further" - to share freedom at Zihuatanejo:

Dear Red,
If you're reading this, you've gotten out. And if you've come this far, maybe you're willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don't you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I'll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready. Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.
Your friend,

With his coat slung over his shoulder, Red walks back through the field - grasshoppers spring into the air all around, symbolic of the new-found liberation he is soon to experience. Before leaving the hotel to join Andy, Red carves his name with a penknife next to Brooks' signature: "Brooks Was Here" - "So was Red." He has internalized Andy's words:

Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'. That's god-damn right. For the second time in my life, I am guilty of committing a crime. Parole violation. Of course, I doubt they'll toss up any roadblocks for that. Not for an old crook like me.

He purchases a Trailways bus ticket for Fort Hancock, Texas (the location where Andy crossed into Mexico) and expectantly looks out the window toward the sun at the start of his Thru-liner journey through the golden New England countryside toward Texas:

I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can 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.

The camera skims across the blue Pacific [a scene filmed in the US Virgin Islands], and then dissolves to a wide shot of a bright, warm, sunlit beach, where Red walks bare-footed on the sand toward an old wreck of a boat. With simple hand tools (a hammer rests on the boat!), Andy is patiently and meticulously sanding the old paint from the boat's ancient surface. He slowly turns and sees his friend approaching - and jumps off to greet him. The camera pulls back, revealing the wide, distant horizon of the blue Pacific with no end in sight. No longer are the prison-mates to be confined by walls, iron bars, supervisory guards, and limits on their lives. Both are redeemed, reconnected and re-united, with the precious possession of freedom.

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