“This movie isn’t nearly as good as last time,” I said to myself while watching “The Shawshank Redemption,” just before Tommy Williams rock-and-rolled his way into the hearts of Red and Andy Dufresne. The mutton-chop-wearing thief represented a new project for Andy, who had just been certified as the prison’s chief intellectual, and was now testing out his hand as Shawshank’s primary educator.
But then, Tommy reveals the unexpected: his former cellmate had admitted to killing Andy’s wife, prompting a dramatic snowball of murder and money laundering that would push Andy and Red to the corner of the continent. It’s a relief when this finally happens because “Shawshank” feels like a movie where nothing had been happening, as idle and unassuming as a prisoner wandering around on a day whose name he can’t remember.
On first viewing, this idleness is boring. But on repeated attempts, its revealed as necessary for “Shawshank’s” world and character building: we need to learn more about Andy and Red, about the Warden and Shawshank, and the only way we can get that is through occasional moments and minute conversations. Then when Tommy finally shows up, after the library has been built and Brooks is dead and Andy’s intelligence is appreciated, are we able to finally return to the central conflict of the film we had forgotten about to this point, that Andy is an innocent man in prison, and that the only way he can get out is through escape.
It’s a poetic thrill, a daunting cinematic novel with boring passages here and there but an epilogue that leaves you stunned. Tim Robbins is great as Andy but Morgan Freeman is a marvel as Red, a decent man whose regret and shame never fades from his eyes, even as his face weathers with age. He is a walking apology, a stiff back carrying a heavy heart, where every verbal quip and playful jab with his buddies masks a deep resentment about not who he is, but who he was and his inability to change.
It’s tough to pick a specific point where people fall in love with this film, as “Shawshank” is a reflection of a collection of moments rather than a close-up of them. But for me, its when Red is left in the prison by himself after Andy escapes, and he’s delivering his monologues about missing Andy and how tough life is on the outside. His prose is poetic, reflecting the hopeless tragedies and infinite beauties of this life of ours. But it’s also revealing that Red really was the main character of the film. Andy had been himself essentially the whole time: kind, educated, devoted to a noble cause.
Red, though, was the one who transformed from cynic to saint, the one who was truly “redeemed” through the film, his only getting parole after letting Andy into his heart. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the impact a single person or relationship can have on our lives, how hearing one other person’s viewpoint can shift ours and guide us from the dirt onto a new path. “Shawshank” is often cheesy and hokey, but it stands the test of time because it consistently reminds us not of the power of friendship, but the power of a friend.