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Twenty years ago this week, the film that we all know and love as The Shawshank Redemption was released in theaters. What started as a theatrical bomb that made little to no noise at the box office turned into a massive home video hit, a cable viewing staple for any good lazy weekend, and the top film on IMDB's top 250 list. What makes Frank Darabont's first motion picture in the director's chair different from any under-appreciated gem in the last 20 years of filmmaking is that for all intents and purposes, it's a perfect film.
Every line, every note, and every moment of The Shawshank Redemption hits you the exact same way that it did the first time you saw it. It's eminently quotable, memorably beautiful, and reads like an adult's bedtime story through the smooth voice of Morgan Freeman. Yet Shawshank's perfection lies not in the fact that everyone remembers a piece of it to call their own favorite moment, but it's the fact that there's such a wealth of moments to enjoy that when the film is mentioned in conversation, its genius is honored in so many different ways. In honor of the 20th anniversary of The Shawshank Redemption, here now are ten of the most iconic moments (besides the obvious choice of Andy in the rain after his escape) that make the story of Andy Dufresne a classic not only in age but also in storytelling.
This feature will contain numerous spoilers for The Shawshank Redemption. You have been warned.
Andy's Moment Of WeaknessWe open The Shawshank Redemption with a good look at a drunk and desperate Andy Dufresne, played with expert style and brilliance by Tim Robbins. Drunk as all get out, and loading a gun to presumably kill his wife and her lover, we're shuttled back and forth between the night in question and the legal proceedings that will ultimately send Andy to Shawshank.
If this were any other film, those in charge would probably want us to know flat out that Andy didn't do it. Instead of taking that shortcut, Frank Darabont lets us mull over the possibility of whether Andy murdered the pair or not, so as to make it all the more rewarding when we take a shine to him, only to later find out that he is innocent.
Tommy Acquits AndyAs previously stated, the beginning of The Shawshank Redemption gives the prosecution and the audience a reasonable case to question whether or not Andy Dufrense was capable of murdering his wife and her lover. The state that he's in, matched with the icy demeanor he shows as he's put on trial work against Dufrense's defense, thus dooming him to his incarceration.
Yet one flashback/monologue ultimately acquits the character we've spent the entire film thus far identifying with, getting to know and like. In this acquittal, Frank Darabont not only acquits Andy of any wrongdoing, he acquits the audience for rooting for him. The mix of sorrow and joy is shared by both parties, and what happens after is just as equally invested between both sides of the screen.
Building The LibraryThrough dogged determination -- as well as a lot of paper, ink, and postage -- Andy Dufrense wages a one-man war with the government of the fine state of Maine. His endgame is to secure funds for the prison library, in hopes that the inmates will be able to enrich their minds and feel just a little bit more like free men in their time of imprisonment. Through one of the film's more comedic moments, his letters are ignored by the government, only to finally be answered.
When Andy Dufrense finds that answer (and it's monetary amount) unsatisfactory, he wages a second campaign that ultimately results in the library being given a regular amount of funding ($500 a year). Andy has proven yet again that he's a force to be reckoned with, and The Shawshank Redemption cements itself as a feel-good movie at its very core. Instead of hitting you over the head with its good deeds, it pokes some good-natured fun at them, while ultimately recognizing their importance.
Brooks' Final DaysAs ultimately redeeming as The Shawshank Redemption truly is, it does have its fair share of tragic moments. One such moment is told through the eyes of Brooks Hatlen, a prisoner from the main gang we follow through Shawshank who is paroled after 49 years of institutionalization. While he makes his best effort, Hadlen ultimately can't handle the modern world and its fast paced ways.
With no support system and no help on the outside, Brooks ultimately takes his life after one last letter to his pals. At face value, this isn't a moment that would belong on a list like this; but I've chosen to include it because it develops the stakes of the film subtly. The whole time that Andy is yearning for his freedom from the walls of Shawshank, he's living among friends that fear that freedom because it could kill them faster than prison ever could.
Beers On The RoofMorgan Freeman's role as Red is iconic for so many reasons. Chiefly among them the fact that his voiceover bathes the film's moments -- even the grimy ones -- in the glow of a bedtime story. One such moment that reflects this is the scene where, after Andy squirrels his way into the good graces of the guards on the roof of the prison, he and his compatriots enjoy an "icy cold Bohemia-style beer, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank."
It's Morgan Freeman's voice over that ties this film together, both tempering the tragedy and enhancing the humor, but without going overboard on either side of the spectrum. More importantly, through this scene in particular, Red's retelling of Andy's story shows how the man he thought would crack first in his class of prisoners gave everyone he became friends with the hope and humanity that the prison experience took away from them. It's something that later saves Red's life, and in a big way.
Andy The AccountantAndy Dufrense's usefulness as an accountant, as well as his tenacity, help keep him sane during his almost two decades in prison. In addition to keeping himself sane, it helps keep Andy in the good graces of guards that aren't even in the same prison as he is. After offering some free tax advice (that almost gets him killed), word spreads that Andy's a hell of a money man. In fact, the way that he works his tax magic for everyone and anyone, it's amazing that he wasn't already in prison on some sort of tax fraud charges.
Andy earns favor through his intelligence, and it you can see it make him so happy to be in charge of the guards that are in charge of him for once. If there's anything Andy values above all else in this world, it's his intellect; and his little accounting firm only helps keep him sharp. That sharpness comes in handy, as this not only gives him the cover for his escape, it also helps him net a huge chunk of cash to live on.
Andy Explains The SchemeWhile working in his newly built prison library, Andy and Red discuss the financial scheme that he and Warden Norton are embarking upon with all of the kickbacks coming in to Shawshank Prison, courtesy of various public works projects. Red, curious as ever, wonders about the ins and outs of money laundering, as he's concerned about his friend's welfare.
With a smile on his face and a glint in his eye, Andy tells Red that it won't be he who ends up in front of a judge this time... it will be a phantom of a man that does. This moment is so infused with such child-like glee as Tim Robbins' Andy explains to Morgan Freeman's Red just how smart he is when it comes to cooking the books. Robbins' happiness is infectious, because not only does it flavor a standard moment of exposition for setting up the film's third-act twist, it's just so good to see Andy smile like a free man again.
A Day At The OperaYou know those moments where you share a movie or song you love with friends who've never experienced it before, and they turn out to be truly moved by its beauty? That's exactly what Andy attempts, and succeeds in doing, when he takes over the prison loudspeaker and plays "Duettino Sull' Aria from The Marriage Of Figaro, thus landing him in some hot water with the screws.
Andy Dufrense might be a culture vulture, but he's not above sharing with his friends inside. In fact, it helps him teach them the ultimate lesson about how to survive during their time in prison. It's the lesson that all of his actions throughout his tie in Shawshank have sprung out of: hope keeps a man alive. With art and the relative comforts of home, Andy manages to do just that for himself and all of his friends.
"His Judgement Cometh"Throughout The Shawshank Redemption, Warden Norton (played by the always impressive "that guy," Bob Gunton) is equally a menace and a mentor to Andy. One moment he's swapping bible passages and allowing minor contraband in exchange for some minor money laundering, the next he's killing the only person that knows Dufrense is innocent in order to keep that operation going.
Yet the best moment in Warden Norton's arc has to be his attempted apprehension, and eventual suicide. Frank Darabont, in the injust and cruel world he created in the context of The Shawshank Redemption, manages to prove that even in an unfair world, the scales sometimes tip in the favor of the heroes. It is also a master class in building tension within such a fast-moving scene, especially coming off the high the audience should have experienced when they saw just how Andy escaped.
Thick As ThievesIf Red had killed himself at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, the whole film would have collapsed on itself. While a fair share of people who didn't deserve to die did just that, to have followed up the investment of all that time and energy into Red's parole hearings with a tragic suicide would have just crushed the audience like there's no tomorrow.
That's not the type of movie that Frank Darabont was setting out to make. Nor was it the type of story that Stephen King was setting out to tell in his original novella. The main thrust of The Shawshank Redemption is that no matter how wicked we are, no matter how far gone or ruthless people may see us, you can always turn it around with kindness and generosity.
It's no fluke that The Shawshank Redemption became a slow-burning hit after its home video release. Much like the prisoners who lived in the cells at the jail it told its story in, people believed in the story of Andy Dufrense and his pal Red. They've enjoyed the hell out of it for the two decades it's been around, and it looks like it'll still be going strong more than two decades from this very writing.
Frank Darabont managed one of those rare feats in Hollywood: he knocked it out of the park with his first at bat, and he has continued to impress ever since. The Shawshank Redemption will always be his crown jewel, as it has not aged a day since its first viewing. Like a freshly polished pair of shoes, it stands out if you know what to look for, and it serves you right. I'd ask when the last time you saw The Shawshank Redemption was, but in the spirit of the film and the metaphor, I'll as a more appropriate question. When's the last time you really looked at a man's shoes?