The Shawshank Redemption’: Critical Analysis Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Shawshank Redemption
  2. The Power of Hope and Friendship
  3. Red’s Role: Smuggling Hope Inside Shawshank
  4. Chronological Storytelling: A Journey Through Time
  5. Cinematography: Crafting the Visual Aesthetics
  6. Sound and Editing: Enhancing the Narrative
  7. References

Introduction to Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (1994), carries a theme of isolation and imprisonment throughout the film. The film centers around the character Andy Dufresne. Andy is a prosperous banker that is found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover. He is given a life sentence to be served in Shawshank Prison. Andy’s life will never be the same. Shawshank prison, like most prisons, is a version of society, on a much smaller and isolated scale. Citizens have jobs that help others, prisoners also have skills that are utilized. Some work particular jobs in the cellblocks, while others have a particular skill or reputation for acquiring goods such as Red. Ellis “Red” Redding was a longtime inmate a Shawshank who assumes that Andy will quickly crack under the new-found pressure of prison life. However, Andy develops a friendship with Red, and they both reassure and identify with each other while in jail. Andy, Red, and the other inmates of Shawshank are imprisoned physically but also figuratively.

The Power of Hope and Friendship

The impacts of separation and detainment result in the powerlessness of the prisoners to imagine a life that exists outside the walls. This film has an underlying theme of optimism, willpower, and strength. In the end, Andy and Red free themselves from loneliness, denial of justice, and from hatred. The film immerses the viewer with a great narrative and amazing cinematography which makes for an exceptional film. In this paper, I will attempt to analyze a few of these elements. The Shawshank Redemption begins in 1946 with Andy Dufresne being convicted of a crime that he claims he did not commit. Andy is sentenced to life in prison and the plot focuses on his struggle to survive. The film is narrated by Ellis “Red” Redding, a convict that was imprisoned at the young age of nineteen. Red has a particular set of skills that allow the inmates to have a link outside the walls of the prison.

Red’s Role: Smuggling Hope Inside Shawshank

Red is a smuggler. Moreover, Red’s ability to smuggle items into the prison brings a small flicker of hope to the inmates of Shawshank. The items that Red brings in illegally, allowing the inmates to have a piece of the outside world. Something that one on the outside may view as insignificant, might well provide an inmate with a sense of peace. Through his many years of smuggling, Red has earned the respect of the prisoners and has developed a reputation throughout Shawshank prison. Andy needs that sense of peace from the outside and Red provides it when he smuggles a poster of Rita Hayworth and a rock hammer. Red has acquired many items through the years and while he is surprised by the unusual request he feels that he would be giving Andy a sense of security by procuring the items. Red understands that his service may provide hope for some of the inmates in Shawshank, yet he also believes that hope is a dangerous idea that can cause one to lose his sense of thinking realistically. Red and Andy have this discussion because Andy is an eternal optimist and Red is a realist. Red has seen other inmates that have had the mental anguish of hopes that have been dashed.

Chronological Storytelling: A Journey Through Time

According to Prison Fellowship, “Feelings of hopelessness and sadness sink in when it's clear that anger or bargaining don't work. Depressed prisoners tend to withdraw from others and focus on what they've lost. Prisoners begin to face the consequences of their past actions” (Zifer, 2016). The Shawshank Redemption follows a chronological order, including looking back at some of the lives of the inmates into times in their lives. Each of the characters encounters external and internal conflicts. Andy’s internal struggle is whether or not he should continue on with his life knowing that he is innocent. His external struggles are the other inmates and prison life itself. The choice of a chronological order had an impact by allowing the viewer to walk with the characters through the events over a twenty-two-year span. This allowed the viewer to not only create a bond with the characters but to also follow the rise of action and anticipation and share in the joy when Andy finally escaped the terror he had encountered at Shawshank. Had the film been told non-linearly it would not have allowed for such endearment the audience grows to have for the main characters as non-linear films events are randomly arranged events, rather than chronologically arranged (Bill Goodykoontz, 2011).

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Cinematography: Crafting the Visual Aesthetics

The cinematography of The Shawshank Redemption allows the viewer to be immersed in the drab, gritty feel of life in prison. While the film had the underlying theme of the human spirit, the film captured the sense of hopelessness of prison life. The grays and shadows were played artfully against the flashbacks and glimmers of hope as seen through the skies above the prison. Roger Deakins, nominated for the 1995 Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on this film noted “we wanted to start off in tight, cramped spaces and end finally in an endless horizon. We wanted to go from grays and monochromes to this blazing color. It’s interesting how color creeps into this story more and more as you go on and how the spaces start widening out” (Christopher Probst, 1995) The camera never distracts in the film, it allows the viewer to follow the relationship between Andy, Red and the struggle for freedom. It simply reinforced the story. The lighting of The Shawshank Redemption also helps to create a beautiful journey for the film viewer.

Most of the lighting for the film is actually the lack of lighting, creating the feel of twenty years in prison and the dehumanizing effect on the soul. In addition, low-key lighting is a lot in this movie. The low-key lighting effect brings out the shadows, playing on the sense of hopelessness of prison. “This style of lighting is based upon high–contrast lighting dominated by deep shadows with a few bright highlights” (Bill Goodykoontz, 2011). The lighting in the film is in itself utilized as a character to add feeling to the story. Deakins uses all the lighting theories and techniques in creating the Mise en scène. In the rooftop scene, it is a bright, sunny day and the use of natural light over artificial light in this scene adds to the relatability of that feeling. “Lighting styles used to enhance film’s power to impact audiences’ emotional response and narrative interpretation have been practiced for the last century but have not been examined by an empirical study of how the audience actually responds to various lighting styles” (Poland, 2015).

Sound and Editing: Enhancing the Narrative

A film may have a great story with great lighting and cinematography but can fall apart with sloppy editing. “Film editing is an under-appreciated art. The ultimate goal of the editor is to make the editing invisible, and as such, we often only notice editing when it is, well, less than satisfactory” (Walter, 1973). One of the first examples is at the beginning of the film, the viewer hears the non-diegetic sound of music playing. The song begins as non-diegetic, but the sound flicks to being diegetic as it is playing on Andy’s radio. According to Molly Clifton, the next editing technique used was an eye-line match. “This technique is where the camera cuts from a character to a point of view shot of what the character has been looking at” (Clifton, 2009) This allows the viewer to anticipate the gravity of the situation that the protagonist is delving into. Continuity editing was utilized in the film with the goal that the entire story is occurring in the present time. The different shoots and scenes mesh well with one another. Many times in the film, when a cell door closes, that is the end of the scene.

The three categories of sound in a film are used in The Shawshank Redemption. There is dialogue, music, and sound effects. “Effective movie dialogue expands upon what you see on the screen but does not need to be said in words” (Bill Goodykoontz, 2011). Many sound effects point to the overall grittiness of the film, including the slamming of cell doors within the prison. The sounds create a gloomy and rather lifeless atmosphere in the drab prison. In particular, the sound effect of Andy’s rock hammer hitting the wall as he tunnels his way out over a span of years, allows the viewer to get a glimpse of the time spent alone in a prison cell. Overall, this film uses sound effects and the dialogue is a crucial part of this film as it tells a story that the viewer intensely rides on leading to the climax of the film, Andy’s escape. During Andy’s escape, the sound effects of the storm leave the audience with a dramatic impact. Without these ominous sounds, the dramatic effect would be far less. In conclusion, The Shawshank Redemption has a collective impact that the viewer finds profound. The meaning is that hope is not lost if one has hope in themselves. The underlying theme of determination and courage allows the viewer to buy into the many emotions of each character. The story, theme, characters, lighting, and editing all come together to make a timeless film. Each element played a vital role in the success of The Shawshank Redemption.


  1. Bill Goodykoontz, C. P. (2011). Film: From Watching to Seeing. New York: Bridgepoint Education.
  2. Christopher Probst, A. (1995, June 22). Flashback: The Shawshank Redemption. American Cinematographer, pp. 42-44.
  3. Clifton, M. (2009, October 11). Molly Clifton Blog Post. Retrieved from Molly Clifton WordPress:
  4. Poland, J. L. (2015). Lights, Camera, Emotion!: an Examination on Film. ETD Archive, 379.
  5. Walter, E. (1973). The Technique of the Film Cutting Room. New York: Hastings House.
  6. Zifer, R. (2016, Jan 22). Five Stages of Incarceration. Retrieved from Prison Fellowship:
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