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To The World on My Birthday: The Unseen Redemption

[The following contains spoilers for The Shawshank Redemption]

It sounds cliche to say it, but one of my favorite films of all time is Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. The film was criminally neglected at the box office when it was released in theaters in 1994, earning less than $30 million domestically. It was also given a pass by Oscar voters, who gave it seven Oscar nominations but not a single win. When Redemption hit DVD, though, it became virtually a mainstream success, and has gained a huge following in the time since.

As a general matter, I do a lot of self-reflection. And when my birthday rolls around (as it has today), that’s when the figurative, body-length mirror really comes out. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fate of Andy DuFresne (played perfectly by Tim Robbins in the film). If you’ll recall, DuFresne was convicted and sentenced to life in jail for the crime of murdering his wife and her lover. But the thing is, DuFresne was wrongfully convicted; even though he had murderous thoughts, he changed his mind at the last minute. A third party did the deed and DuFresne was given the blame.

While at first, DuFresne felt and appeared utterly defeated by the bleakness of his fate — and who wouldn’t be? — eventually, he accepted his place at Shawshank State Prison and used his resources to help others. From a single act of kindness on top of a hot, tarred roof, DuFresne ended up opening a prison library, educating fellow inmates, and trying to make the world a better place. All the while, he was digging himself out of prison using a foot-long rock hammer. It took him a few decades to finally break free, a metaphor for how long it took him to dig himself out of the emotional hell he found himself in at the beginning of the film.

I think the film is absolutely, 100% brilliant. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But it only really shows you half of the story.

Towards the end of the film, when DuFresne is at his lowest point and apparently on the edge of suicide, he speaks with Red (Morgan Freeman) about the inescapable circumstance that the both of them have found themselves in:

DuFresne: 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. A bad husband, maybe. Feel bad about it if you want to, but you didn’t pull the trigger.

DuFresne: No, I didn’t. Somebody else did. And I wound up in here. Bad luck, I guess. It floats around. It’s gotta land on somebody. It was my turn, that’s all. I was in the path of the tornado. I just didn’t expect the storm would last as long as it has.

These few words give the viewer a window into the years of neglect that happened off screen, before the movie even began. Did DuFresne’s coldness drive his wife into the arms of another man? If DuFresne had been a little bit more loving, a little bit more warm, would the tragedy of his wrongful imprisonment still be a reality? We’ll never know, but it’s not difficult to imagine that the answer to these questions is “Yes.”

We never get to see any of their marriage, nor are we privy to the health of their interactions and as a result, I think our understanding of the fullness of DuFresne’s transformation is limited somewhat. Without seeing the kind of man he was before, it is harder to appreciate the man he ends up becoming. That’s the real transformation that’s the crux of the film — not that of a wrongfully convicted, bitter man, but of an aloof, complacent, and ungrateful one. His metamorphosis is not from the depths of evil to the heights of good. Rather, it begins from a place of banality, of monotony.

Yet it strikes me that the way the movie chooses to depict Andy’s character arc is still the most effective way to do so…to leave DuFresne’s former self to the imagination of the viewer. And so that’s what I’ve envisioned it as: a soulless, sexless marriage, devoid of passion or purpose. In a way, DuFresne’s jail sentence began long before he even arrived at the monolithic, imposing walls of Shawshank, albeit the former was a self-imposed term. His real-life imprisonment became a physical manifestation of what he was already going through.

Note that his crimes aren’t necessarily that severe, and that most would consider his punishment disproportionate. But just as serious crimes such as rape and murder are most frequently committed by those who know the victim and not by some serial rapist/murderer, so the wrongs we inflict on others need not be extreme or newspaper-worthy to be completely devastating.

Play this while reading this post for maximum impact 🙂

But that’s why the movie is so uplifting: because DuFresne does ultimately find his (drum roll please) redemption. The film offers hope in the fact that no matter what crimes you’ve committed, no matter who you’ve wronged or what you’ve done, you can still find salvation, even in the unlikeliest of places.

The life of Andy DuFresne does not map perfectly, or even somewhat, onto my own life. But I see myself as somewhere on the timeline of his character arc, constantly reaching for the ever-elusive light, waiting to emerge from a mile-long sewer pipe full of shit that I put myself in.

What Shawshank says to me is that it’s only when you’re put in a situation of utter hopelessness and desolation that the process of reconstituting yourself can begin. It is only when your circumstances are dire enough to destroy you that you really appreciate the heart-swelling goodness that life holds. Then, with this knowledge imparted, you act accordingly. You treat your friends and fellow man with dignity, decency, and kindness. You look to their joy as reward enough. You look to brighten the lives of others before you are gone. And you find peace in these things.

When my boss at /Film, Peter Sciretta, wished me a happy birthday last year, he re-affirmed his well-wishes by saying, “This year will be better than the last.” Having experienced this past year, I can’t really say that that’s been the case. But I can say that I like that message of hope and optimism. No matter what has happened in your past life, the sun will still rise tomorrow, and you will still have a chance to turn it around.

In the year that comes, I will endeavor to learn from my past, but not to dwell on it. To look into the future with hope. To understand that darkness comes before dawn, and that the process of becoming a better person doesn’t happen just in a few months or in a year. It might be decades. It is probably a lifetime.