The story shifts not only visually but also in point of view. The rest of the film is almost entirely narrated by Red, whose full name is Ellis Redding (Morgan Freeman). By having Red tell tell the tale, Andy can remain a mystery as to what he thinks and plans, thus allowing for plot surprises, and we only get to know him from his actions and effect on others. We see Red at the first of three interviews he attends to determine his eligibility for parole. He has been a prisoner for twenty years and presents a stock speech that he hopes will get him his release. When asked if he thinks he is rehabilitated, Red answers, “Oh yes sir, absolutely, sir. I mean I’ve learned my lesson. I can honestly say I’m a changed man. No longer a danger to society here, and that’s the God’s honest truth.” Of course the board realizes that there is no sincerity behind the words and deny his request. But, the board also is just going through the motions, not really trying to delve into the prisoner’s situation or character. That is why the other prisoners say that they have been or will be up for “rejection,” since those in authority offer them little hope, a word that becomes the central focus for the main characters.
Of course many would say that those who have broken the law deserve such deprivation, but the movie implies that the brutality depicted here would challenge the Constitutional requirements against “cruel and unusual” punishment. The group of new arrivals which includes Andy receive a dehumanizing reception from the cruel prison guard, Hadley (Clancy Brown, who makes amends as a sympathetic prison guard in The Hurricane). He tells the novice inmates, “You eat when we say you eat. You piss when we say you piss, and you shit when we say you shit.” So, those incarcerated have even lost the freedom to control their basic drives and bodily functions. Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) also addresses the group, and shows his warped priorities by stating the most important rule is to not take the Lord’s name in vain, which he labels “blasphemy.” Apparently any acts of violence are secondary, on the parts of the prisoners and the guards. He issues bibles to everyone and pretends to be an upright Christian, but he turns out to be a religious hypocrite.
The seasoned prisoners bet on which of the new men will break down first. Red thinks it will be Andy because he appears to be a privileged citizen who will not be able to tolerate the reality of his new situation. Red says that the first night in prison is awful because the only thing a man has to do is dwell on all that he has lost. First-nighters are stripped of their clothes, and symbolically their identifications with their past lives, and are hosed down naked and burned with delousing powder (this demonic rebirth contrasts with the ending). But it is not Andy who breaks. One man does, and his unstoppable crying elicits a beating from Hadley that results in the prisoner’s death. Red misread Andy, which is consistent with his early on inscrutability. However, we start to see how Andy is the bringer of humanity to the prison when he wants to know the name of the man who was beaten to death, while the others dismiss the man, seeing him as just someone to bet on. Red says that they found out that Andy was a vice president of a bank, and this status job along with his aloofness caused resentment from others who saw him as uppity.
However, Andy had no such protection. The “Sisters’ take an interest in him. Red says that prison is no fairy tale world, and these men, led by Bogs (Mark Ralston), whose name reminds one of a swamp, attack and rape Andy. Over a two year period, Andy was sometimes able to fight them off, but other times could not. That the film does not paint all convicts as victims can be seen in the depiction of these men, who Red says are not homosexual, because “you have to be human first. They don’t qualify.” Red tells us that Andy would have been destroyed if the assaults would have continued. But, if one wants to consider a religious interpretation, a sort of miracle occurred. The event took place, appropriately, on an elevated level - a roof. Red fixed it so that he and his pals would be assigned to a detail outside in the warmth of the sun, tarring a roof. The men overhear the nasty guard, Hadley, complain that the $35,000 dollars he inherited will be eaten up by the IRS. In a scary move, Andy approaches Hadley and asks him if he trusts his wife. The guard almost throws Andy off of the roof, but Andy says that there is an exclusion in the tax laws that allows a gift to a spouse. Andy offers to do the paperwork if he can get some beer for the other inmates during a break. The deal is made, and Andy, who has given up drinking since the night his wife was killed, did not risk his life for himself. He sits in the sun, with a smile on his face, enjoying how he has done something for others. Red says that maybe Andy did it to win over some fellow prisoners, or to gain favor with the guards. Red believes Andy did it to just to feel “normal” again. But, that normal state that Andy brings fans out to others, as he bestows a moment of transcendence from bondage. Red says that the men “felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses.” Andy is a transformative agent. He brings humanity, and hope, to others.
Red and Andy play checkers, but Andy prefers chess, and later he carves pieces out of rocks. His liking of this strategic game gives us a hint that he will be planning something in the future. In fact, the following scenes add to the clues concerning his future endgame. We watch him carving his name on the wall of the cell with the rock hammer which is followed by his approaching Red while the latter is viewing the Rita Hayworth film Gilda. Andy asks Red to get him a poster of the female movie star. At the time we don’t question the significance of these two scenes following each other, but we later receive the payoff.
Based on his meeting with Andy, the warden assigns him to the easy detail of helping the senior inmate, Brooks (James Whitmore), at the prison library. There is no real need for Andy being there, the library being small. The area, however, is a good pace for Andy to do the taxes for the guards and later the warden, along with guards from other prisons. They all get Andy’s expert financial advice without having to pay accountants or lawyers. Andy figures he can bargain. He asks the warden to allow him to petition the state legislature for funds to expand the library, which the warden agrees to.
In the middle of Andy’s attempts to better the plight of the convicts, there is the story of Brooks, who, after fifty years of confinement, has been granted a release. He has become what Red says is an “institutionalized” man, and has no clue as to how to deal with the outside world. Brooks holds a knife to the prisoner Heywood’s (William Sadler) throat, hoping the act will keep him inside. He relinquishes the blade, and before he leaves, sets free his pet crow, Jake. The bird finds freedom, but Brooks remains imprisoned in his mind. We now get a change in the point of view as Brooks becomes the narrator, as he tells of his problems in a letter to his friends in prison. Brooks is frightened by the world he is forced to rejoin, whose abundance of choices overwhelms a man whose life was rigidly structured. Everything moves much quicker, as is seen by a speeding car that almost hits him. It is symbolic as to how life has moved on, leaving Brooks behind as he fossilized behind bars. He lives in a halfway house, which indicates how he is caught halfway between two worlds. He has no skills because his incarceration did nothing to prepare him for reentry into society. At a senior age, riddled with arthritis, the system secures him a job as a lowly grocery store bagger. He thinks about committing a crime so they will send him “home,” which is a sad indication that he considers the prison his place of true residence. He eventually hangs himself. Red says, “These walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them … They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take.” Red’s take is that the system is set up for punishment only, and doesn’t really offer the chance for a new start.
But, redemption (thus the film’s title) is exactly what Andy wants to bring to the situation. After six years the state government sends him some money and books donated by a library. Instead of stopping his letter writing, Andy increases the number or requests for more expansion. The state eventually gives him an annual stipend, and walls are broken down and the library is expanded. Andy provides a new world of knowledge to the inmates, and even gets them a release from their dreary labor to help him set up the library and do the taxes each year. He tutors may of the prisoners who eventually earn their high school equivalency diplomas. Early on in this process, Andy discovers a recording of two women singing an aria from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” He locks himself in the warden’s office and plays the record through the PA system so the whole prison population can hear it. The beauty of the music contrasts with the harsh voices of the guards shouting at Andy, and Hadley’s breaking of the glass on the door, as those in authority become the agents of disharmony. The men are spellbound. Red, who through his narration shows the effects of Andy’s actions, says he doesn’t know what the women singing in Italian were saying, but the content of the words was not the point. He says, “those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.” These poetic words again refer to the bird as a symbol of freedom. Andy bestows that feeling onto the imprisoned.
Andy serves time in the hole for his act, which the warden in his warped way sees as an infraction instead of an act of kindness. After his punishment, Andy tells the other prisoners that it was easy time, because he kept the music he played inside himself, and those in charge can’t take away the liberating feeling that music instills. He tells them basically that they can still be free inside and reach a higher level of humanity spiritually despite the fact that their bodies are locked away. Red admits that he played the harmonica once, but threw it away because he didn’t see the point of keeping it given the circumstances. Andy argues that inside prison is when you need that feeling music inspires most. It keeps the feeling of hope alive. Red does not want to entertain false expectations. He says, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Even though he has experienced brief moments of that hope while tarring the roof and listening to the music, Red, at this point, won’t allow himself the possibility of experiencing the crushing disappointment of unfulfilled dreams. In another symbolic act, Andy acquires a harmonica, and gives it to Red after another denial of parole so as to inspire hope even in the face of rejection. Red can’t find it in himself to play it yet, probably because it would seem too optimistic to him. He does produce one note in his cell, a foreshadowing of a future change in attitude.
The next day Andy does not come out of his cell. But, he didn’t commit suicide - he escaped. We hear Red’s narration and see flashbacks of how rock broke off from the cell wall as Andy tried to carve his name. He used the Rita Hayworth poster (and eventually one of Marilyn Monroe and one of Raquel Welch) to cover his tunnel work. He dumped the dirt in the prison yard through his pants (similar to what is done in The Great Escape). It took him twenty years to get through the walls. On the night he escaped, he wore the warden’s shoes and the man’s suit under his prison clothes. He put them in a water-tight plastic bag which he tied to his leg with the rope. He picked a rainy night, went through the tunnel and reached the space between the prison walls where the sewer line sat. He used a rock to smash the pipe when thunder roared to cover the sound, and crawled through the excremental filth to freedom. So, Andy’s plan, to use Red’s words, was a “shitty pipe dream,” which seemed like only a false hope, but was turned into a liberating reality. The warden finds Andy’s bible which the inmate cut a wedge in to hide his rock hammer (appropriately in the book of "Exodus,"symbolizing escape from oppression). He inscribes the good book by saying that salvation does lie within, but the reference is to the hammer, and the liberation is from the hypocritical Christian tyrant.
One can argue that Andy is a type of Christ figure. His last name, Dufresne, means “ash tree,” and, according to IMDb, the ash tree in folklore represents healing or death and rebirth. Andy sacrifices his old self by going to prison, and the naked scene as he enters prison symbolizes a rebirth into a trial by ordeal (like Jesus’ incarnation) in a place where he tries to bring salvation to others. As Red says in the end he crawled through “a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.” When he exits the sewer pipe, he again strips off his clothes and the rain falling on him, in a shot downward from the heavens, appears like a deluge of grace, washing him clean, like a baptism, symbolizing a rebirth out of the world of sin. Andy even stretches his arms out, like Christ on the cross, but now freed from that cross. Andy is reborn into the man he created, Randall Stephens (maybe like God the father creating Jesus the son). Since he has all of the identifying papers, and a signature to match, he visits all of the banks where he has deposited the warden’s wealth. He withdraws it all, and sends incriminating evidence to the newspapers. The guard Hadley is arrested, and the warden commits suicide before being caught. Divine justice is dispensed?
Red receives a blank postcard from a place in Texas which he assumes is where Andy crossed into Mexico. He misses his friend, but says, “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged.” We are again reminded of Brooks’ crow, Jake, and Andy, unlike Brooks, is capable of flying beyond the walls that imprison him, both physically and spiritually. Red finally obtains his release when he doesn’t give the rehearsed speech to the parole board. He says that he feels sorry for that boy that was him in his youth and wants to go back and talk sense to him to stop him from committing murder. But, that boy is long gone, and what replaced him was this old man. Since he convinces those in authority that the law breaking person no longer exists, he is set free. But, Red is an “institutionalized” man like Brooks, and he seems to be following in the dead ex-con’s footsteps, living in the same room and doing the same job. But, his promise to Andy keeps him going. Red looks beyond the guns in a display window and decides not to commit a crime to go back “home” to prison. He instead purchases a compass to find what is buried in Buxton. Andy has given him a direction. He finds a box buried near the tree where Andy asked his wife to marry him, representing the romanticism of young love, a feeling in opposition to Red’s cynical anti-hope stance stated in prison. The box has a picture of a ship on it, implying more direction and a journey, something to pursue. In this sort of “treasure chest,” Andy has left money for Red’s “voyage,” and a letter saying if he came this far, he has it in him to push himself, to go further. He has given Red signposts on the road to salvation. Andy pays his redemption forward, and Red is the recipient as he joins his old friend on a beach, bathed in sunlight (the opposite of the dark beginning of the story) and symbolically cleansing waters.
As he rides toward his destination, Red now invokes hope in a sort of prayer. He says, “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.” Andy says in his letter, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Through hope, in the presence of adversity, maybe, we can all be redeemed.
The next film is High Noon.