One of the most interesting, entertaining, and ultimately rewarding things about watching a movie that carries certain level of emotional depth and thematic presence is being able to deconstruct the picture and take from it different ideas and different themes. One such movie that I found myself doing this with happens to be, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and rewarding films of all time, and my personal number one. That film is the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, a picture that is free to interpret in many different ways regarding its narrative and its ultimate thematic message. One such interpretation would be to say that The Shawshank Redemption is an anti-religious film. Certain characters, their relationship to one another, the prop work, and the end result of the film indicate, in my humble opinion, that Shawshank speaks against the idea of religion as salvation. Warning: spoilers ahead…
Andy Dufresne, played to perfection by Tim Robbins, is a wrongly accused man; a timid, intelligent man whose wounded pride lands him in the Shawshank Federal Penitentiary with back to back life sentences for a crime he ultimately did not commit. Dufresne, along with a line of damned souls, is introduced very early on to Warden Norton (a deliciously evil Bob Gunton), a man who uses Christianity to mask his otherwise untoward acts. Each prisoner who enters Shawshank is given the bare essentials regarding clothing and toiletries. They are also given a bible. Norton tells the new prisoners “I believe in two things: discipline and the bible.” This sets up Norton as the representation of Christianity for the film.
The fact that Norton is the most evil and corrupt of the characters in the film is the first indication that the film does not take a positive stance towards religious ideologies. But that is not enough to convict the film. The prison walls themselves represent the broad-spanning hold that religion has upon the masses. Everyone in the film, in one way or another, relies on the prison to live. Consider the quote from Red, Andy’s closest friend played by the always reliable Morgan Freeman. Early on in the second act of the film, Red discusses the idea of institutionalization: “These walls are funny. First you hate them, and then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so that you depend on them.” This explanation points to the idea, in this argument, that the prisoners of Shawshank, the masses, eventually buy in to the idea of prison as represented by the Warden. So by that rationale they develop a dependency on the religion represented by the very walls of the institution. Thus, the institution becomes religion, meaning religion is represented in the broadest of senses by the prison itself.
Now that the religious groundwork has been laid for the film, consider now Andy’s escape. First, consider the actual physical task of escaping. How does he do it? By using a rock hammer, Andy chisels away at the prison wall, creating a hole in its existence, enough to crawl through to the other side. This very literal action simultaneously represents the figurative idea of creating a hole in the prison wall that represents religious ideology. Now consider Andy’s hiding place for the rock hammer he uses for his escape. Andy hides the hammer in the bible which Norton supplied him in the beginning of the film. He does this by literally taking the words out of the bible and fitting the hammer inside. The very physical action of removing the words of the bible to hide what is ultimately Andy’s true salvation, coupled with the physical hole in the wall of the prison, are both clear indications that the picture is rescinding the idea of religion as the institution by which these characters must abide. The creation of holes in the very fabric of religious representation in the film points to the anti-religious ideology of the narrative.
Once Andy is finally free of the prison walls, he finds himself in the rain, a rain which washes him clean of all of the corruption and evil deeds that were put upon him within the prison walls, and put upon him by Warden Norton. This is Andy’s true baptism, a baptism free of all of the religious symbolism that loomed large over the first two acts. Only when Andy is free of the walls and of Norton, is he truly saved. His salvation, in other words, comes not from religion, but by escaping religion.
This may be one man’s opinion, but it seems that there are a number of physical and figurative actions throughout The Shawshank Redemption that indicate it’s stance on religion is not one of praise and positivity. Instead, the indictment of religion lies within the very fabric of the film’s plot. This, however, does not take away from the very impact and beauty of a film that hinges on the idea of hope. Hope does not have to be exclusive to religion, and perhaps that is the ultimate message of The Shawshank Redemption.
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