It’s easy to be drawn to well-realized introverted characters in movies. Like any good mystery, they offer up a challenge for the audience to figure out based on limited information. Their propensity to communicate more with body language and facial expressions than with dialogue makes them the ultimate object of our curiosity; we’re compelled to focus even more closely on them, and this focus can be held as long as they continue to give off subtle clues revealing their internal motivations and character, rewarding our heightened attention.
There are also examples of characters who may seem aloof and emotionally blank and, as far as we can reasonably tell, actually are the way their surface qualities indicate. It is sometimes also easy to confuse these types of empty characters with those that are simply more quiet and elusive but possess more than meets the eye. I just want to make clear that I acknowledge the abundance of both these types of individuals in movies and would like to think I can tell the difference between the two most of the time.
Cinema has a few unique qualities that allow it to play with mystery in distinct ways. It’s got this whole durational thing going on, existing in the present with us for a period of time, moving forward as we do, so there’s the implication of progression towards more new information and developments being made available to us, the viewer. This forward motion gives the impression that many details being presented throughout are important, and therefore deserve attention if we wish to figure out the “answer” that will likely be made apparent by the end of the movie. It’s the entire premise of the surprise ending, upon which so much of film thrives in effect. This is of course in addition to the fact that the visual cue is central to cinematic expression, including and especially in the realm of character, dating back to the silent era which was still able to feature close-ups and relied even more on communication through methods that did not include words. So it has a history for this sort of thing is what I’m trying to say. Add further to this the dimension of editing, where the filmmaker can give hints at connections between, for example, character and emotionally impactful object (often summarized as the Kuleshov Effect). These hints can be made very strongly or with the greatest subtlety. And yet, ultimately we are still left only watching and trying to figure out what exactly we’re seeing. All of these elements lend themselves to an air of mystery that movies can create for us in a powerful way.
This natural ability to convey mystery is both foreign to us and familiar; the urge to watch and judge and speculate about people is surely relatable for anyone who has had time to kill in a crowded mall or just enjoys people-watching in their spare time. What we do not often get to experience in real life is the amount of detail allowed with these objects of our voyeurism, nor the time dedicated to contemplating the complexities that make up a specific human being. In other words, we can’t really follow them around as much as we’d like to, at least not enough to get some real answers. This is the type of wish fulfillment the movies were made for. Hence, we are given the opportunity to observe quiet characters, judge them to be strong but silent, or shy or socially awkward, or thoughtful or introspective, or a combination of these traits and more. So we’re given the time and access to really explore the mystery of people who may otherwise elude us in real life, and sometimes at the same time we’re granted a story that has a real mystery whose workings get revealed in an extraordinary way.
I suspect this is one of a number of reasons The Shawshank Redemption is so incredibly beloved. Its central character, Andy Dufresne, is a bit of a closed bookkeeper, so to speak. A mild mannered accountant, he spends much of the movie keeping to himself. We in the audience have a surrogate by the name of Red (because Morgan Freeman speaks for all of us and we have no choice but to feel what he feels, damn him); together we learn what the deal is with this Andy guy and what he’s up to.
As it turns out, he’s up to quite a lot, but the big reveal involving his eventual escape works precisely because of Andy’s soft-spoken nature—he keeps his entire plan to himself. This is a welcome contrast to other movies that pull the rug out from beneath us through various sneaky methods like arbitrarily withholding information or outright contradicting established character motivations or plot mechanics. With Red we are surprised by Andy’s scheme for the simplest of reasons: he didn’t say anything about it. It’s satisfying to finally find out the major moving parts within the mind of this intriguing character, all that was going on beneath his cool exterior. And yet at the same time it’s not particularly surprising, because at that point we have been exposed to other small surprises like his skill with locating tax deductions, his leveraging ability when it comes to manipulating the warden, and his seemingly trivial fascination with and knowledge of geology (I mean I guess that was a fairly large hint at the whole chiseling through the wall thing).
The long-term planning required for Andy’s story also depends greatly on one special characteristic that’s often typical of introverts: patience. There’s a lot said in the film about the role of hope, and hope is central to Andy’s motivation, the hope that his situation will improve, that he will be able to accomplish his various goals involving the prison library and initiating his own retrial. Red describes Andy as having a “meticulous nature,” which to me implies one part hope and one part patience. It’s this nature, this patience that enables Andy to keep at something that takes years, 19 years in fact, with the hope that eventually it will pay off. It’s a similar patience that compels your common introvert (as Andy seems to be; the internet has gone so far as to declare him an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale) to wait—both to pause and wait for a thought that they consider worthy of speech before sharing it, and also wait their turn, to listen and allow others the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. His combination of patience and hope is what makes his story possible in an environment where these qualities rarely find any reward.
The movie is certainly a story of affirmation. Even though we’re presented with the alternative outcome faced by Brooks—whose heartbreaking sequence midway through the film emphasizes the tragedy that extends beyond the prison walls—hope in the possibility of finding personal freedom is the overwhelming message we’re left with in the end. It sounds stupid when put that way I guess, but Shawshank sets up a context where people trapped in a situation with seemingly no autonomy are able to assert themselves as individuals. Ok, it still sounds kind of dumb, but there’s nevertheless a genuine feeling and truth to the film that is expressed best within the confines of its own universe and medium, something we can appreciate intuitively when we witness the friendship that binds Red and Andy beyond their bonds in prison, and the freedom they finally enjoy. Andy’s rain-soaked emergence from the prison expresses something akin to the feeling an introvert may get when they are able to free a thought that has existed for too long in the prison of their own mind.
It’s easy to be drawn to this movie, and to Andy Dufresne, as so many have been.. His triumph as an introverted movie hero is a beacon for anyone who is of the philosophy that some things are best left unsaid, and a prime example of the intrigue a movie character can attract by being quiet.
– Darren Ruecker