The Shawshank Redemption — 1994
The movie started at 7:00. Driving into the city was a non-option. Taking the train to East Central was not. It was only a short walk from Wayne Manor to the closest station.
Alfred opened the gate for them and locked it behind them: Bruce, 11 years old, his father Thomas, 56, and Karina, 44, his mother.
“Be careful Master Wayne,” Alfred said. “There’s talk of some volatility.”
“Appreciate your concern, Alfred,” Thomas replied. “We’ll be fine.”
“I believe the same movie is playing locally. Are you sure I can’t convince you?”
“Again, don’t worry about it.”
It was late November, the Sunday following Thanksgiving, so it was already dark out.
Bruce looked over his shoulder at their head butler. Alfred raised a hand and smiled. Even at his unadvanced age Bruce knew that Alfred was a good man. He genuinely cared for his employers, and not just because they paid his salary. The Waynes were something of East Coast royalty. They were real estate moguls, and owned and maintained many a high rise and brownstone throughout Gotham and its surroundings. They were used to being recognized in public. Thomas did what he could to maintain his good name, but there was no denying the jealousy Bruce felt from some of his classmates at school. The recent years had not been ones of plenty for the larger society. The scourges of crime, poverty, and unemployment hammered at Gothamites of all walks of life, except, perhaps, those of families like the Waynes, all but assured as they were at the top of the food chain. And that some of the kids at school started coming in wearing clown make-up… it was disturbing. Bruce could feel the antipathy behind it. And the way they sometimes looked at him. He supposed there was a price to pay for his family’s relative comfort: that is, that they sometimes found themselves afraid. Bruce too was aware of the protests and what they signified. Life wasn’t easy for anyone these days. It was quite possible that something had to give, somewhere, and fundamentally. Alfred had once told him not to take it personally. Bruce believed this to be good advice.
The Waynes found an empty cabin on the train and took their seats. Karina smiled at her son, took his hand and put it in her lap. He could be forgiven for noticing an air of apprehension about her. Not so from his father: 6’5”, he knew how to defend himself, short of carrying a gun. Bruce knew he had a few of these too though. He wondered if the thought had crossed his mind to bring one. At the moment, looking out the window at the late twilight scenery, Thomas looked sure of himself, but this might have been a bit too obvious, as if he was proving to himself as well as anyone who might recognize him that he wasn’t afraid. Perhaps, Bruce thought, he should be. Still, the boy said nothing. Days, months, years later, however, he often wondered if he should have, if maybe he could have respected his and his mother’s fears, and could have thereby staved off that which he would come to feel as an inevitability, as if his parents’ murder was the climax to a narrative he hadn’t been aware was unfolding. But admitting his fear would have been admitting defeat. Surely Gotham wasn’t as bad as all that, no matter what some of the protesters’ signs said (“Eat the Rich!””We need help!””Fuck the police!”). You can’t allow the outside world to take itself away from you, now can you?
About half an hour later the train pulled into East Central Station, and the Waynes disembarked.
Bruce liked this building. It was ornate but not showy, and was always full of activity.
“Which way is the theater?” Karina asked.
“Down Broadway a block or two,” Thomas replied.
“I hope it’s not sold out.”
“We have plenty of time.
The herds of commuters flowed ably around them as the three left the station. Stepping onto the sidewalk Bruce could immediately tell this wasn’t a typical night for the city. There were ranks of policemen dressed in riot gear across the street. There were homeless people huddled in the spaces between the buildings, and there were clown masks. Lots of them. Schools of them. They were chanting and carrying the very signs Bruce had already seen over the last few weeks, ever since those stock market men had been murdered by the man in the clown mask, the mystery man the people had come to call the Joker. He found he didn’t want to be recognized. He felt he and his family could be their perfect scapegoats. “Eat the Rich!” “Take back the city!” “Fuck the Police!” Most of the signs looked homemade and primitive, and had obviously been made with care and passion. He was sure that, at school the next day, his teachers would take some time to appreciate these strange times they were living in. After all, it was inescapable.
They soon reached the theater. Karina and Bruce got in line while Thomas purchased their tickets. There were some clown masks there too, as if some weren’t part of the protests, but were making their feelings known anyways. As if murder could be condoned. It wasn’t right, was it? Things must be so hard out there. Bruce knew well enough to know that he couldn’t imagine. Maybe it had been a mistake to come into central Gotham tonight. Maybe they should have gone the opposite way, out into the suburbs. There probably weren’t as many clown masks out there, right? Bruce wanted to hide his and his parents’ faces. There was so much anger here. You could touch it with your hand. Perhaps it was reaching its zenith. Perhaps you could no longer ignore it. And, of course, that was probably the point.
“What do you think they want?” Bruce asked his mother.
“A better chance at living, just like anyone.”
“Do they know who we are?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think they hate us, Bruce. They’re just running out of options.”
Some other people in line looked uncomfortable too. Strange, for so many to take the side of a killer.
“My God,” he heard a woman near him. “They’re everywhere.”
Thomas found the two of them and gave them their tickets.
“You know I’ve heard this movie might be a little ‘adult’ for our son,” Karina said in an unavoidably tremulous voice.
“Gotta toughen em up early,” Thomas smiled at her. “Besides, I’ve got the feeling that a little bit of violence on the silver screen is the least of our worries tonight.”
A line of police moved out into the street and seemed to be attempting to re-direct traffic. Bruce could almost, but not quite, make out the words of a nearby protest; he was likewise unable to tell where the noise was coming from. They sounded impassioned, motivated. If this was the only way change could come about, Bruce only hoped that it would be worth it. And some of those clown masks in line seemed maybe to be looking at he and his family especially. Alfred had probably been right: they shouldn’t have come here. When the line started to move Bruce felt much relief. At least when there was a movie in front of him he’d have something else to think about.
The Waynes entered the theater and followed the rest of the crown to screen 6. They got good seats in the middle of the hall, not too close to the screen and not too far away. Karina produced the popcorn she’d made at home, and the soda cans. She was naturally thrifty. Unlike her son or her husband, she knew what it was like to live without. Old habits died hard that way.
The lights went down and the coming attractions started. Bruce tried to let himself be taken away by the distraction, but it was undeniable by the nervous, forced laughter of the audience, that everyone had more on their minds than the entertainment.
Soon enough The Shawshank Redemption began. Indeed, it was probably too old for him. But it fit with Thomas’ penchant for challenging his son. Some day, when he held the company’s reins, he would have to make quick, creative decisions, and know when to be hard and when to be forgiving. Within the next few years the true grooming for this position would begin. Bruce sometimes found himself looking forward to it.
As Tim Robbins developed as a prisoner, combatting a pack of bull queers and getting to know Morgan Freeman, the noises of the chaos outside grew more audible, impossible to ignore. At a certain point he thought he heard chanting. It must be close, maybe right outside. He looked at his mother, and she was looking at him too. She took his hand and squeezed it. Thomas, if anything, looked perturbed.
Then, while Tim Robbins was hijacking the warden’s office to play an operatic passage for the rest of the prison, the lights suddenly came on and the movie stopped. A portly bald man wearing a blue vest uniform came in front of the screen.
“I apologize, ladies and gentlemen, but we’re discontinuing operations for the night.”
There was a less than enthusiastic grown from the crowd.
“The Joker’s killed Murray Franklin on live television, and the mayor’s ordering a curfew. You’re all to proceed home as soon as you can. Bring your ticket stubs back here tomorrow for a full refund. The protests are getting out of hand.”
“Come on, get up,” said Thomas. “We have to go.”
They were up before the patrons sitting close to them, and the Waynes soon found the aisle and marched back the way they had come.
“The Joker?” Bruce asked.
“I guess now we know who he is,” Thomas said.
“A profoundly disturbed individual,” said Karina.
“Seems that he’s got plenty of company.”
Coming out into the lobby Bruce smelt something acrid in the air. They approached the glass door entrance, beyond which the night looked cloudy, which was the teargas, accounting for the smell. There were people everywhere, running, pushing. There were screams and there was a police officer on a megaphone telling the crowd to disperse. Bruce couldn’t tell if anyone was listening to him. There were answering chants from the crowd too.
They shouldn’t have come tonight. Thomas, his father, had made a mistake. How, oh how, would Bruce be able to look at his schoolmates the next day?
The Waynes went out into the midst of it all, and kept their heads down and their hands over their mouths as they struck South on Broadway. Bruce was looking down at the sidewalk, allowing himself to be guided by his mother, when something stopped them. Two pairs of dirty sneakers suddenly appeared a few feet in front o him, stopping his parents.
“Wayne? Thomas Wayne?” Bruce heard. “Give me your money.”
Bruce looked up and thought he recognized the clown-mask-wearers from observing the crowd earlier tonight. Apparently they’d noticed him too.
One of them, a large, well-disguised man, reached out and grabbed his mother’s wrist.
The big man was going for his mother’s watch.
“Okay okay okay!” his mother shouted and tried to free her watch, unclasping it. A moment later it was gone.
The night was pandemonium all around him as Bruce looked to his father and saw that one of the assailants had a gun. Then, almost too quickly for Bruce to believe it had happened, three gunshots were set loose, deafening and apocalyptic, and both of his parents fell to the ground.
“No! Oh my God!” Bruce yelled, and the clowns looked at him, and seemed to think together a moment before dropping the gun and fleeing into the night.
Bruce started to cry. His parents were all bloody on the sidewalk. Were they dead? They were convulsing. There was blood in their mouths and on their shirts.
He put his hands over his eyes and fell down on his knees. He stayed there, jostled from side to side by the people around him, unable to move. Some time passed before a pair of police officers came to help him.
“Are you alright, son? Are these your parents?”
“Oh my God,” said another one. “That’s Thomas Wayne. Of Wayne Enterprises.”
“Jesus,” said another. “What a night.”
Bruce heard them but couldn’t answer. Eventually an ambulance came too. Bruce was loaded into the back of a police car, unaware of anything except the chaos he’d witnessed, all at the hands of someone named the Joker, who was responsible for what had happened to his mother and father. He was an orphan. There was no way around it. He could only hope, and found himself praying that somehow, some day, some way he would be made whole again. It would become his most important fixation: his parents’ lives will not have been ended so cheaply without consequence. The identities of those who had done it would be welcome information indeed. And the Joker. Perhaps his misery, someday, would have to do.