Review: ‘The Shack’ Cinematically Confronts The Problem Of Suffering

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Re-posted from Forbes

MAR 4, 2017 @ 01:16 AM

Marketing for The Shack has been odd, to say the least. I’ve seen the trailer in front of several explicitly Christian films, and it’s so vague as to possibly mislead. Star Sam Worthington was shown interacting with multiple magical beings, so even though the vibe of the thing was faith-based, a casual viewer could easily imagine it to be polytheistic, new agey, or just a way to show Worthington in a supernatural garden and make people think of Avatar. Maybe those who know the book as a surprise Christian bestseller might have been presumed to already be a guaranteed audience, with the trailer’s goal being not putting the masses off by mentioning Jesus too much. Targeted radio spots on conservative talk stations made a better case, clearly selling the film as the religious uplift that it is. It’s tracking to do a fairly impressive $12 million opening weekend on a reported $20 million budget, so maybe bad marketing doesn’t matter. Here’s the thing: it’s exactly the sort of faith-based film that could and should make inroads with the non-churchgoing; whether it will may be up to word of mouth, and/or people unable to get into sold-out shows of Logan.

We should hope for the best, because The Shack, despite some minor missteps, is what faith-based films aspire to be: a feature with good actors, a structured screenplay, music that’s sentimental but not terrible, a focus on the most positive and universal elements of the Gospel, and an original hook that keeps it from being more than just a predictable narrative of a gone-wrong protagonist who finds obvious redemption. More orthodox adherents may take issue with some of its theology, but even there, the story offers an out – the fact that much of it may be a dream or a vision allows for the fact that the divine message had to filter through a human’s subconscious, and may have done so in a way that allows him to handle it in the best way possible.

The most significant flaw is the very weird choice of having the story be narrated by the protagonist’s neighbor, Willie (Tim McGraw), who isn’t present for most of what happens. This may be a holdover device from the book, or a way to add another layer of plausible deniability to things by having it all be a third-hand account. It is, however, pointless; the narration adds no illumination to what we can plainly see, and McGraw…well, let’s just say he’s no James Earl Jones.

Now, I know a lot of Avatar haters are going to scoff at the notion of Worthington being called a good actor, but if you’re going to argue the point, do this first: watch both God’s Not Dead movies back to back, then watch Worthington in this. I have, and trust me, he’s good. His accent is still sketchy, going back and forth from passable regular-guy American to Anglo-Australian and back, rather than ever fusing the two the way Mel Gibson did early on, but it’s not really important. That he conveys grief, despair, rage, and redemption is, and he does.

From left to right: Kate Phillips (Megan Charpentier), Josh Phillips (Gage Munroe), Nan Phillips (Radha Mitchell), Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) in THE SHACK.

Jake Giles Netter/Lionsgate

From left to right: Kate Phillips (Megan Charpentier), Josh Phillips (Gage Munroe), Nan Phillips (Radha Mitchell), Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) in THE SHACK.

Worthington’s character, Mac, is put through the wringer. He grows up being beaten by a drunk dad, and out of desperation, poisons pop’s booze and kills him. As an adult parent, he saves one kid from drowning only to have another snatched up by a serial killer, and since this is not a revenge movie, the bad guy gets away with it. Left to his own devices on a cold winter day, he discovers a mysterious note in his mailbox asking him to come to the shack where his dead daughter’s bloodied clothes were discovered, and it’s signed “Papa” – his family’s name for God.

Naturally, he thinks it may be a trap or a delusion, but he has to go anyway, since life has lost its point and it feels like he has nothing left to lose. Long story short, when he gets there, things get weird, and he finds himself directly interacting with the personifications of the triune God: “Father” (Octavia Spencer, a female form because God knows Mac has Daddy issues), Son (Avraham Aviv Alush, as the most authentically Middle Eastern Jesus I’ve ever seen onscreen), and Holy Spirit (solo-monikered Japanese actress Sumire). Additional characters emerge when it becomes clear that the “Father” may choose to shape-shift when it suits the role He needs to play in Mac’s life – the Octavia Spencer form is based on a kindly neighbor he barely remembers from childhood.

This will be a problem to some: when Bruce Almighty came out, there were evangelical critics who objected to Morgan Freeman as a humanoid God the Father, arguing that God in human form is and only ever will be Jesus Christ. If that’s a sticking point, remember that this is all Mac’s vision, and sometimes in dreams even people we know can appear in two or more different bodies. The Holy Spirit as an Asian woman rather than a dove is a big imagery shift relative to what classical artwork depicts, but her portrayal as God’s most touchy-feely side, for want of a better term, is creative. Frankly, if you were okay with Aslan being Jesus as a lion in The Chronicles of Narnia, this shouldn’t be too great an issue.

Early in the film, Mac’s soon-to-be-killed daughter asks difficult questions about why, in a Native American legend, the Great Spirit would let a princess sacrifice herself, and also, if said Great Spirit is God, why he’d let Jesus die painfully on the cross. Much of the rest of the story is dedicated to answering this question, as Mac learns how to empathize with God’s point of view, not wanting to sacrifice a single child even as they harm each other. It’s deeper than that, obviously, but you’ll have to go see the movie for the full argument.

While the arguments made are religious, their points about guilt and forgiveness are valid regardless of whether or not you think Jesus might someday show up to walk on water with you. The focus is on the Golden Rule of loving one another rather than a laundry list of Thou Shalt Nots; if you prefer your religious movies to give you the pep talk that you’re good and secular liberals are evil, this isn’t the one to attend. Rather, it assumes our own worst enemies can be ourselves, when we rush to judgment and condemnation despite sometimes being wrong. This God is more like Yoda on Dagobah than Franklin Graham in an anti-Islam sermon, and comes complete with mystical cave of the Dark Side.

Just as fundamentalists can use the “all a dream” escape hatch to explain away departures from dogma, so too can atheists and agnostics argue that this is merely the story of a man wrestling with his better self, which he calls “God,” or rather, “Papa.” Regardless of which path you come at it by, it’s a cleverly told lesson of love and forgiveness, and the most appealing movie sermon I’ve seen in years.

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