About 95% of the movie takes place inside the walls of Shawshank, so we should probably talk about it a bit.
Keeping in mind that a director's job is generally to make an audience empathize with a film's protagonist, what better way to do that than to create a helpless feeling of claustrophobia and desperation? Trapping us inside Shawshank with Andy and Red for two hours is certainly enough to do the trick.
From the minute Andy's bus is driven through the gate, we are unable to leave. We have to suffer along with him through every inmate attack, every stint in The Hole, every maggot-ridden cafeteria offering. By the time Andy finally escapes, we start cheering inside. Not just because he's our hero and we've been rooting for him to get out, but because we're sick of the place. We'd almost climb through that sewer of sludge with him if it meant getting to see a scene shot in a different filming location.
That said, the director does a great job of not making Shawshank seem so awful that it seems unrealistic. Even though the movie is based on a Stephen King story, it doesn't feel like a prison from a horror movie. Inmates aren't tortured nightly for no reason, they aren't killed willy-nilly (although at least a couple of them definitely didn't deserve it), and once in a while the guards and the warden even show some kindnesses, i.e. the beers on the roof, movie night, etc.
In fact, Andy's got a pretty sweet set-up, as life in Shawshank goes. He gets to work in the library, eventually helping the guards with their taxes, doing what he loves and what he's good at. He even locks one guard in a bathroom when he decides to go all rebel and play that record, and he somehow lives to tell the tale. Talk about being a "warden's pet."
The Most Depressing Apartment Ever
Apparently, when someone is let out of Shawshank, the big guys in charge like to reintroduce former inmates back into civilization by hooking them up with the most depressing boarding house of all time.
There's nothing inherently depressing about it. It's roomy, well-lit…seems comfortable enough. However, Brooks becomes so upset that he hangs himself there, and Red is nearly driven to do the same. What is it about that room that kick-starts the sad?
To be fair, the room itself may not be completely to blame. As Red says, once a man is "institutionalized," he has a hard time adjusting back into the real world. It can be a combination of loneliness, being overwhelmed by new technologies, and a sense that one doesn't quite fit into the grand scheme of things any longer that keeps driving them to despair.
That room is where they come home every night, though, and where they have time to really think about things. It's where the loneliness is felt the most. It probably doesn't turn Red's frown upside-down to see "Brooks was here" carved into the wooden beam.
In this case, Zihuatanejo happens to be an actual place, but it really doesn't have to be. It's more the idea of the idyllic beach town that's important.
Zihuatanejo basically represents two things—hope and freedom. It's the carrot dangling just in front of Andy's nose, spurring him on whenever he starts to wonder if he's ever going to get to the end of that tunnel. Also, because most of us will never have to dig our way out of a prison cell, it's the concept of having a strong, definitive goal and working hard to realize it that resonates with the film's audiences.
What's your Zihuatanejo? An Ivy League college? Early retirement? A happy marriage and a couple of kids? Maybe your Zihuatanejo is the actual Zihuatanejo. We wouldn't blame you. We've seen pictures. That water is mad blue.