It’s a gutsy move to put the word redemption into the title of your movie; there better be a big payoff at the end. But the payoff in The Shawshank Redemption isn’t a dramatic battle scene or a homecoming, or even lost lovers reuniting. It’s two men, who can’t go home, meeting on a Mexican beach. That’s it. It’s a beautiful scene, and as the last shot zooms out you breath in a little more deeply (or maybe that’s just me because I’m often crying by the end of the movie). Regardless, if you aren’t paying attention, you might miss what happens.
As prisoners, the main characters struggle throughout the film to maintain their humanity. Surrounded by rape, forced solitary confinement, and restrictions on hobbies and art, the characters become less than what they were created for. Redemption enters the story simply as the chance to be human.
This film doesn’t provide us with a single answer to what it means to be human, but rather gives us small specific moments that serve as pieces of the answer – like trying to view Glacier National Park by looking only through a paper towel roll. The pieces come in moments when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) plays “The Marriage of Figaro” over the loud speaker (earning himself time in “the hole”), teaching a young convict to read, building a library, and, in one of my favorite scenes, Andy risks his life to help one of the toughest guards with his taxes in exchange for a few beers for his ‘co-workers.’ The scenes add up to a life that resembles the human experience. After all, “I think a man workin’ outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds.”
One of the most memorable lines from the film is repeated by multiple characters: “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin.” It is this line that Andy and Red repeat when they are faced with their own dehumanized reality. In those moments when the characters overcome the dehumanizing life around them in order to “get busy livin,” we, as viewers, are moved deeply by a glimpse of what our humanity truly means.