The most iconic image in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption and really one of the most iconic film images ever, is of Andy Dufresne, just escaped from Shawshank prison, arms outstretched almost Christ-like, reveling in the storm that rains down on him. It’s the moment that the whole film was headed towards, the moment that, to that point, most prison movies head toward: the triumphant escape of a wrongly accused man from a life of brutal physical and mental abuse. Shawshank is set in a prison, though it isn’t really about prison. At its core, Shawshank is a movie about redemption and fighting through adversity and friendship and defeating an evil Goliath. Thematically, Shawshank isn’t entirely different from say, Hoosiers, with Jimmy Chitwood’s buzzer beater over South Bend replacing Dufresne’s revenge on Warden Norton and with Hickory High standing in for Shawshank Prison. Dufresne’s innocence is just a creative crutch to lean on, as it’s easier to root for an innocent man than a murderer—just as it’s easier to root for small-town, poor farm kids than students at a preppy basketball powerhouse.
In theme and execution, The Shawshank Redemption followed the familiar pattern written and perfected by the famous prison movies that came before it—an innocent man (or in some cases, a very charming guilty man) suffers abuse at the hands of an overbearing warden or a sadistic inmate or both, and right before they reach a breaking point, our (anti)hero plots and attempts an escape that either:
- Is successful, resulting in their freedom, and we can call it a victory.
- Is unsuccessful, but inspires their fellow inmates, so we can call that a moral victory.
The Great Escape (1963) had Steve McQueen, maybe the coolest, easiest-to-root-for man in history, who in the film is literally nicknamed “The Cooler King,” leading a group of allied POW’s out of a German war camp.
The Longest Yard (1974) had Burt Reynolds, who, unruly hairy chest and receding hairline aside, was the 1970s Homecoming King, leading a gang of misfits in an unlikely prison football game against the guards to an even more unlikely victory.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had Jack Nicholson, who, stop me if you’ve heard this before, is also maybe the coolest, easiest-to-root-for man in history and replaced chain gangs with therapy groups and is basically Cool Hand Luke 2.
Escape from Alcatraz had Clint Eastwood, who was cool and charismatic enough that despite his character being such a despicable criminal he was moved to the highest security prison in history, we all still root for him to beat the island.
Multiple movies in the 1980s followed that lead, with Escape From New York (the city is a prison, not metaphorically), Bad Boys (the boys are bad, not metaphorically), Runaway Train (the train has no brakes, not metaphorically), and An Innocent Man (the man is innocent, not metaphorically) all revolving around an escape and/or justice for the wrongly accused. Movie titles weren’t the most creative in the ‘80s.
So the recipe for a successful prison movie was fairly obvious. Put an extremely likable lead actor inside the walls of an extremely unlikable place and root for him to escape, and if he cannot escape, at least push back against the tyrants in charge. Shawshank only slightly broke the mold, as Tim Robbins has about as much charisma and charm as a bowl of warm peas or, on his best day, a small cone of vanilla ice cream. Maybe it’s because Shawshank is so beloved, or maybe it’s because Shawshank did it so well, or maybe it was just audience fatigue, but there was a noticeable post-Shawshank shift in prison movie subject matter. From Dead Man Walking to American History X to Sleepers to, more recently, Bronson and Starred Up, prison movies have focused less on innocent men getting out of jail and more on what life in jail does to a (usually guilty) man on the inside.
Full disclosure, I’ve never been to jail. It’s just not a place I ever want to find myself. Recently, while visiting San Francisco, I even refused to join a tour of Alcatraz because well, I’ve seen a lot of movies and you just never know how a trip like that is going to turn out. However, I did spend all of last weekend watching prison movies and I was a Criminal Justice major, so I’m not exactly a “fresh fish” when it comes to prison knowledge. It seems to me, without the benefit of immersive experience, that prison is just about the worst place on Earth.
I imagine being incarcerated is much like being the passenger on a very violent, unpredictable submarine. It’s an impossibly unnatural way to live. If it isn’t the unnerving, all-encompassing claustrophobia that breaks you, it’s the pressure. It’s the idea that while the rest of the world passes you by, you are wading against a current, furiously moving to nowhere, stuck in a place teeming with testosterone and violence and never-ending waves of humming, brutally tense waves of never-ending and not necessarily unfounded paranoia.
The walls that keep the inmates inside do nothing to stop the problems of the outside world from getting in; racism and classism and abuse and systemic institutional failure are not only prevalent but amplified to the highest degree. A bubble is formed. The prison becomes its own ecosystem where violence (or the threat of violence) is the universal language and currency. With little hope of safety, let alone rehabilitation, it’s no wonder so many of our previous movie inmates wanted to escape. And while the idea of a system of inmate rehabilitation is nice, it’s just a mask of distraction thrown out to cover an uglier truth. The prison system is no more interested in inmate rehabilitation than Andy Dufresne was interested in his poster of Raquel Welch.
Recent prison movies are becoming a reflection of this reality. I suppose you could make an argument that the majority of inmates (both real and imagined) don’t deserve your sympathy, but that’s not what movies like Starred Up or A Prophet or HBO’s recent The Night Of are after anyway. These are projects that aren’t all the way concerned with guilt, innocence, or what an individual did to deserve being punished. They aim to look at what that punishment is doing to the individual, in both the present and the future.
The best prison movies aren’t even looking to make an overt social statement. Instead, like a team of nature documentarians, they’re aiming their cameras and revealing a hidden, ruthless, breathtakingly intimate landscape. In a sort of twisted way, a well-done prison movie acts as a low-stakes learning experience. We watch our movie inmates struggle to stay alive and sane and navigate a consistently shifting and increasingly perilous social landscape. Our worldly problems only seem bigger when shrunken down to the smallest, most cramped scale. We see what the authoritarian pressures and social constructs and racial divides will do to the incarcerated and the lose-lose choices that an individual must make when they’re stripped of that individuality. It’s brutal and exhausting and terrifying. Maybe that’s why we collectively stopped making so many escape movies. Once we see what’s happening inside, we aren’t concerned with the inmates leaving. It’s us that need to break away.