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.


17 comments :: To The World on My Birthday: The Unseen Redemption

  1. beautiful.

  2. Not only do I want to say Happy Birthday, but you are a great writer and really know how to put words together. "beautiful." as the first comment pointed out.

    Do the countdown end now?

  3. Well said, Mr. Chen.Happy birthday, and best of luck to you in the coming year.

    I enjoy your broadcasting work immensely. It has re-invigorated my appreciation of films, and has made me get out to see things I would have otherwise missed. (Especially the Dragon film, which I ended up seeing twice when I had planned to skip it all together.)
    Dreamworks owes you some finder`s fees, I think.

    I hope you keep doing what you do, and find happiness in your life.

  4. Happy Birthday, David.

  5. I don't know much about you or your supposed shortcomings, Dave, but you're very special to me. In the words of Robert Duvall's character, Apostle E.F., "I love ya, and the Lord loves ya!" I know how heavy life can become, but this verse has always helped me: "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) Because He did it, we can all do it, too. You're an exceptional film journalist (and the most interesting Tweeter that I follow). I'm without a doubt the No. 1 fan of The /Filmcast, and your work inspires me, brother. Truly. Happy birthday, David Chen. The world got one of its best gifts on this day. You're not just one in a million; you're the only one. Your pal, Jason

  6. Happy birthday from Finland, David! I love your work on the podcasts and you come off as a really nice guy. I wish you all the best!

  7. Absolutely wonderful, Dave. Never stop writing.

  8. Happy birthday! I always find myself in a reflective mood around my birthday too. I have a question; you talk on your post about Andys former life and whether we need to see it or not, but what are your thoughts on the often discussed ending of the film? Do we need to have the visual closure of Red meeting Andy on the beach or is it better to trust that using the clues he would have found him anyway? Did it need to be emphatically spelled out to us? Deep huh?!

  9. Another happy bday from Finland. You bring us much joy, big smiles and my fav podcasts. Many happy returns!

  10. The Watcher's Podcast began midway through my college career. I'd been searching for other film podcasts ever since finding and loving Cinecast/Filmspotting during my last year of high school. The personality of the hosts as well as the harmony between them greatly affects the overall enjoyment of any program. You, along with Devindra and Adam, each bring a particular voice to every conversation which then produces a well-balanced and wholly unique program.
    It has now been three years that you have been part of my life and that makes you a friend. Of course I respect all three of you equally, but I value yours and Devindra's opinion more than that of Adam though he should take no offense in that. I enjoy his thoughts for what they are.
    Though I am a few years younger than yourself, I'm blessed to have the knowledge to understand the value of this life. As I do consider you a friend, you inspire me, David, and I admire the qualities which you possess. Of course, it's an understatement to say you produce two remarkable podcasts week to week. All of your loyal followers appreciate all the time, energy and resources you put into your work. But it is my understanding that, though you have accomplished so much, even you would not want these to be your only legacy. So today, on your birthday, know that whatever pursuits to choose to embark upon, in these years to come, I wish you only the best and I pray that you may find success and prosperity.
    Thanks for everything. Your friend, Nizar.

  11. Happy Birthday!

    I'm curious about your age.

  12. Happy belated birthday Dave, this post gave me some semblance of hope, thank you for that. Thanks for slashfilm and thanks for being you.

  13. Belated birthday wishes...and congrats on your citizenship!

  14. Happy (seriously belated) birthday Dave! We'll both marvel if I ever respond to anything fabulous in/about your life with respectable punctuality. I will be on time to your wedding someday. I agree with the person who posted previously: Never Stop Writing--not only because writing itself offers a kind of redemption but also because you do it with wonderful insight, honesty and voice. (You must have had some phenomenal English teachers!)
    I think the only reason we are given "lifetimes" is because it takes that long for us to begin to figure out why we're here and to live with generosity, compassion and grace.

    Elizabeth Imende

    July 18, 2010 at 11:06 AM

  15. Man alive. How the hell do you contact you guys. I know you always have that blurb at the end of the filmcast but when your in the UK and attempt to have the endings not spoiled, you sto listening prior to the ending of the filmcast.

    1. Jurassic Park - my favourite film also (I do a podcast too and we recently just covered as I am a obsessive fan) so kudos to quigley there (Nb, peoples resentment of adam is on the simple basis that, at 21, he has the coolest job in the world. Mothef.)

    2. The Village is awesome - pre-dating Haneke's White Ribbon and yet with some strange parrallels (that would be the palme d'or winner! no-one slammed that!). I am a huge Shyamalan fan and I am gutted about the latest installment... though living in britain means i have yet to experience the bending. Fact is, previously you on the first review you were slamming last airbender - the 'worst' shyamalan movie but already - on the latest podcast - turns out, most of you guys think 'the happening' is the worst one... will it be better than 'lady in the water' the week after?, in a month, the best shyamalan? I hope so ... though i doubt it.
    I have to say, the first FOUR shyamalan films still outweigh the previous three, so the balance is on his side ... but in two-more-films time... it would be over... unless he turns it around. And what about 'Devil' the frst film from the Night Chronicles... interesting methinks.

    3. Love the podcast, have wanted to email in for ages but simply couldnm't find a simple link on the sites so this is the closest option. Apologies I haven't read the post it is attached to yet, but I shall do now I know about this blog.

    Cheers

    Simon
    www.screeninsight.com

  16. Surely with your obvious skill at writing, your warmth and personable nature on the slashfilmcast, your honesty and self-awareness on this blog - you're already half way to where you want to be, even if it's not immediately apparent to yourself. I can't see how any of these achievements would come easily. Savour these triumphs, however small you feel them to be, people go their whole lives without managing any of this stuff.

  17. Ahhh.... Dave. It came out on VHS dude. DVD was a few years off. ;o)

    I ridiculed my girlfriend at the time for loving what looked to be a stupid sentimental film. I then saw it on VHS after we broke up and...well... she was right. It is awesome! When I was watching it my Dad sat down just as Andy arrived at prison and said: "Another depressing prison movie. Really!" But then stayed through the rest and had a tear in his eye come the credits. He is soft though; he still cries at the end of Titanic!

    Hope you had a great birthday.

    Tim
    Wellington
    NZ

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