Tim Robbins and Morgon Freeman in "The Shawshank Redemption" in a prison yard, staring into the distance with contemplative faces
This image was taken from the official trailer for "The Shawshank Redemption," distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

“The Shawshank Redemption” has been cited as one of the greatest films of all time by critics and audiences alike and been compared favorably to classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In all three movies, the protagonists face nearly insurmountable odds and have to grapple with physical struggles and the psychological ramifications of extreme despair and hopelessness. What’s special about “Shawshank” is that the characters never truly succumb to this despair and hopelessness; they end the movie uplifted and restored. 

Because of this, “Shawshank” has the special distinction of being both melodramatic and self-serious but also optimistic and life-affirming, as the main characters learn how to conquer their challenges and achieve inner peace. Many films communicate that being thoughtful and substantive requires also being tragic and poignant — “Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Dead Poets Society” come to mind. But “Shawshank” knocks down the idea that important movies need to be emotionally distressing. It proves that serious, thought-provoking movies — those that are designed to leave the audience with a lasting impression — don’t have to be cynical. Movies that profess the goodness of humanity and have happy endings don’t have to be sappy and superficial; a lot of “Shawshank”’s power comes from the reverence with which it treats its positive ideas. The marquee example of this is protagonist Andy Dufresne’s (Tim Robbins, “Mystic River”) climactic escape from prison. His plan is methodical and robust, and he gets out not by chance or irony, but by fully believing in his goals and working tirelessly toward them. 

The movie’s themes often draw comparisons to philosophical concepts like humanism, the belief that people should strive to achieve their potential and that they have agency over their own lives. The two principal characters, Andy and Red (Morgan Freeman, “The Dark Knight”), are often at ideological odds. Red believes he is trapped, and that hoping to escape this trap is foolish and only leads to pain. This is in stark opposition to Andy’s unbreakable will to live. Humanists believe that people can achieve great things by believing in themselves and can push themselves beyond their perceived limits. 

Andy exemplifies this through his mindset and actions, like establishing a library for the prisoners, teaching them how to read and write and even managing the warden’s finances. His unyielding determination can be seen as messianic and Christ-like, but I see it without a divine meaning. It is more inspiring to interpret Andy’s strength and ascension as derived solely from what human beings can do — it reminds us that we can conquer our own great struggles in our lives by giving them everything we have. 

But Andy doesn’t start the movie with all the answers. Even though he never fully gives in to despair, he isn’t always upbeat and often questions whether his goal to inspire himself and other prisoners is right. Yet as he spends more time imprisoned, he is able to let go of his doubt and self-actualize. Andy accepts his situation but never loses his wish for freedom. By the time he escapes Shawshank, he is content with who he is and knows any goal he sets his mind to is achievable. He trusts his actions, even without the safety net of a light at the end of the tunnel. His self-assurance makes it unnecessary. 

Having watched this movie for the first time during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was intensely affected by Andy’s spirit and willpower and the unceasing optimism found in the film’s events. A worldwide state of uncertainty exacerbated my already strong anxiety and fear of failure. I was someone who kept myself from trying anything without a fallback, and seeing and feeling the constant level of confidence and courage in “Shawshank” was extremely inspiring.

Andy and Red are where this movie becomes personal to me: No matter how intense the adversity, I can never let it break my spirit. However painful it might be, and however out of reach success may seem, I can never stop believing in myself and my ability to conquer all obstacles in my path, just like how Andy never stopped believing he could be free from his physical and mental imprisonments. “Shawshank” showed me that the moment you give up on the possibility of success, you have already lost. Ceaseless belief in oneself can require vulnerability and acceptance of the possibility of failure, and fear can make that immensely difficult. But if you acknowledge this fear and still push forward, you can accomplish anything. 

Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at alvinsa@umich.edu.