AFI film school #6: The Shawshank Redemption — Why the movie is so beloved


Today we’re looking at one of the most controversial movies of all time.

Not controversial like The Interview or Human Centipede 2, but controversial because IMDb (a site where movie fans rate movies) ranks it as the best movie all time. It’s been there for years, occasionally swapping places with the Godfather at number two.

BTW the IMDb list works on a 1-10 rating system, so it’s not necessarily the movie that is the most people’s favorite, but it’s the one that the most people have given a very high rating to.

This often leaves a lot of people who don’t love it baffled. While there are not many who absolutely despise it, many non-fans are left scratching their heads, wondering why it got ranked so high, and saying, “I mean it’s good, but it’s not even close to being THAT good”

As you may know, I’m doing these posts in the order that the Podcast Unspooled is doing them (a badass Podcast, hosted by The League’s Paul Scheer and film critic Amy Nicholson). I started, doing these, though, while they were at movie 29 (they decide the order of movies by the roll of a 100-sided die). So this is the first one of their 1-28 films that I’m going back to look at.

When I listened to the podcast on this episode, which I definitely recommend, Amy and Paul had a similar reaction to a lot of people: they liked the movie but were still not totally sure why it places as high as it does.

As per usual, I will look at the theme of the film and the specific things it does well. But with this, I think I can answer the burning question: why do so many people love the hell out of this movie.

Which is also my defense for why I believe it belongs on the AFI 100 list.

Here we are with 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont and written by him and Steven King.

Your own personal Jesus


Every movie, at least every cohesive one, has an underlying theme: a statement it’s making or a question it’s asking.

I think a lot of people might deduce that Shawshank’s underlying theme is something along the lines of “hope is a powerful thing.” This makes sense, as hope is a huge theme of the movie. It also starts to answer the question of why do so many people love it. We all want to feel hope.

And the result: the film does cause a lot of people to feel hope, and it’s why so many respond to it. But it’s not exactly the underlying theme. I mean, a lot of movies have themes similar to the one above, but they don’t actually cause us to feel that hope. At best, they just make us feel happy for the character.

So then what is the actual underlying message that causes us to feel that hope?

Before I say it, I want to mention that I don’t mean to offend anyone who’s religious with this post. I think religions can have a lot of positive benefits, like encouraging love and peace, which is dope.

But when we’re living in a society, like the US, which is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, there can be some drawbacks. Some of the past philosophy (think Puritan days) can permeate the way we think and see the world. Whether we ascribe to the ideas or not, it becomes part of our subconscious because it’s so ingrained in our history, our media, and our stories.

We’re told again and again that in order to be a good person, which I think we all want to be, we have to sacrifice some of our own happiness. Pay now, and you’ll be rewarded in another life.

Almost all movies that have a Jesus parable, which is A LOT of movies, feature a main character who enriches a lot of people’s lives, but at the end he either dies, suffers, or realizes he “has it good” already and shouldn’t change anything. We’ve been told this story countless times.

When listening to the Unspooled podcast, Amy and Paul interviewed comedian Duncan Trussell, who I believe nailed what this movie is getting at. He mentioned how Andy Dufresne is the Jesus character, uplifting others, saving people left and right, suffering throughout the film. Seeing him through the eyes of Red solidifies him as a savior character even more. But there’s one major difference: when we think that Andy is going to die, the expected conclusion, he instead frees himself and goes to Mexico to live his dream.

And thus we have the theme of the movie: “You should be your own savior too.”

When Andy Dufresne escapes, it’s an amazing relief because he’s subverting the cliche and giving us all hope for our own lives. Gone is that weighty feeling that we’re not supposed to experience our own enjoyment. We can be a great person AND we can be happy. It’s not either/ or.

The main villain in this film is a hypocritical zealot who is firmly on the side of causing misery. Warden Norton says “I believe in two things: discipline and the bible. Here you’ll receive both.” He actively tries to keep his prisoners in prison, making them pay for their past deeds, not caring about any sort of redemption. He tries to ensure that none of them will reach happiness in this life.

When someone opposes him, Tommy with his story, Norton so easily has brimstone, aka bullets, rain down upon him.

Andy, though, is able to rise past it. Meaningfully, he uses the bible to hide his tool of escape, showing he received his own meaning from “salvation lies within.”

What can be taken away


Something I looked at in the It’s a Wonderful Life post, is how for a movie to be uplifting, it first needs to linger in the dark. It has connect with the part of us that needs a pick-me-up, and it needs to spend a lot of time there, so the ending can feel cathartic.

This can make uplifting movies very hard to watch. Positive emotion/ great message or not, we do have to spend most of these films watching rough scenes, so we tend to not visit them unless we need to.

The Shawshank Redemption also spends most of the movie in this place; however, unlike many uplifting movies, it’s not hard to watch. In fact, people revisit it over and over again. TNT might still be in business because of the number of times people catch Shawshank on it and decide to not change the channel.

The movie does a lot of clever things to fully represent the down moments while still making it super fun to watch.

If you’re created an uplifting story, these are some things you can do to make the sewage tunnel viewers have to crawl through fun to watch.

Looking good

Prison is an ugly place. Well, I’ve never been there, but I hear things.

The natural thing for directors to do when making a prison film is to make the aesthetic as ugly to bring the viewer into the experience. Low lighting. Drab colors. The feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped throughout the shots.

Frank Darabont and cinematographer Roger Deakins don’t do this. The film is full of beautiful shots, sunshine, and vibrant colors. They let the script and the subject-matter carry all the negativity for them, and instead opt to make the entire movie look gorgeous.

The result is that we get to look at something nice. Bad things are happening yes, but the look of it carries a sense of nostalgia that is almost comforting.

Having the bright lighting also serves to make the moments they choose to shoot in the dark more powerful--Andy’s first night in jail, Norton meeting with Tommy, etc. The restraint to not shoot everything so darkly makes those moments pop.

A good lesson in how whatever the subject matter is, you can always aim for something pretty.

Keep it classy

A lot of terrible things happen in this movie, and with its R rating, it would be easy for Darabont to show it all in graphic detail. But again he uses restraint and while not sugarcoating anything, he chooses to keep it as classy as possible (it makes sense--he’s heavily inspired by Capra, the classiest of the classiest).

There are several horrible beatings in this movie, but we don’t see much of any of them. The one we see the most of is masqueraded by the dark. All of the other ones, we only see the very beginning, and then we cut away, being told what happened by Red.

There are also a couple rape scenes that are handled with the same discretion.

Andy literally crawls through a tunnel of shit in this movie, and it could have been a scene to rival a Farrely brothers gross-out comedy. But we weren’t subjected to seeing much of anything.

This kind of restraint accomplishes a couple things:

It lets us use our own imagination. Oftentimes, letting our minds fill in the gaps is far more powerful than being gratuitous. Also, since using our imagination is by nature more interactive, it often causes us to have more empathy for the characters.

It doesn’t turn us away from the movie. Seeing those horrible things can be a real drag to watch. Even if a viewer is a fan of gore, having to see it, especially in a drama, can take a toll on us and make us a little less likely to want to go through the experience again.

Little victories

Even though most of this movie is filled with characters in a bad situation, it’s also filled with tiny victories that makes the whole experience more fun to watch. This is different from a movie like Midnight Express, where everything for the character sucks, and every win is just a bigger loss waiting to happen.

Here are some of those victories in Shawshank Redemption:

-The beers on the rooftop

-Andy getting the job doing taxes

-Boggs and the sisters going away

-The library expansion

-The entire prison getting to hear music

-Red playing the harmonica

-The second, bigger library expansion

-Tommy getting a GED

Those victories aren’t bait and switch victories, where the character pays an even harsher loss for the win. Well, except maybe the Tommy thing. That didn’t work out too well.

But the point is that even when you’re telling a story where the setup is sad doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of genuine happiness sprinkled in.


There’s a very important word in the theme “You should be your own savior too.” It’s the “too.”

Andy is his own savior, but he’s not just his own savior. If he wasn’t, there wouldn’t be as much of a story to tell, and we see plenty examples of pure selfishness in Boggs, Norton, Byron, etc.

Throughout the movie we get to see the changes he makes in Red as well as the other prisoners. He’s a man who gives so many others hope.

Even though there are scenes of Andy alone, we never get too far inside his head. This keeps an aura of allure around him and let us completely identify him as the savior.

By the time Red is released, we feel the same way about Andy that he does. Red is ultimately inspired not just by how Andy raised hopes in jail, but by how Andy raised hopes and then got to escape. This causes Red to not kill himself like Brooks, but to fight fight being institutionalized instead. And if we identified with Red throughout the movie, it can make us feel like our own happiness is achievable.

A lot of movies try to do this. So many try to inspire that feeling of hope, but none succeed as well as The Shawshank Redemption.

It’s pretty easy to give a 10 to something that does that.

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