Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours min. 12.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
1 John 4:16
Moreover, we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan,
everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.
Romans 8:28 (Phillips)
(1) Mack's family when Missy was alive, and
(2) Max making biscuits with God at the shack where his youngest daughter was murdered. (c) Summit Entertainment
Ten years after Canadian William P. Young’s theological novel became a best seller, it now comes to the screen, adding Octavia Spencer to the roster of actors who have played God—George Burns and Morgan Freeman. Or I should say, 1/3 of God, for this film features the Christian Trinity, Father (or Papa), Son, and Holy Spirit! Quite a feat for a writer and filmmaker to attempt to pull off!
Long-time readers of VP know of my lack of enthusiasm for almost all faith-based films. I have always regarded these films as visual sermons preached to the choir. While the same is true for director Stuart Hazeldine’s film adaptation, there is a huge difference in that this film explores so many Christian doctrines in an unconventional way that it challenges believers to move beyond the narrow boundaries of their present understanding of their faith. The Shack is a Christian apologetics work, following in the train of the 20th century’s famous C.S. Lewis. But just as Lewis’ works served to challenge and stretch the faith of believers, rather than to convert staunch atheists like Bertrand Russell, so this one will likewise be unconvincing to those outside the Christian faith. Especially if they read the tepid and negative reviews of most critics: the critic for The Wall Street Journal reveals his ignorance by condemning this as a “New Age” film, despite the three marvelous actors who are expressly identified as members of the Holy Trinity! (No, make that four actors, as God changes her appearance into a male late in the film.)
Before the title appears, we are shown the sad background of the protagonist in scenes in which the young Mack Phillips (Carson Reaum) and his mother are abused by his church-going but alcoholic father. We do see that a kindly neighbor (Olivia Spencer), offering him a piece of pie, tries to comfort him. When he asks her what he should do, she tells him to turn to God. The script never suggests that this is like what the apostle James condemned in 2:14-17 of his Letter—or even that it goes against the child abuse laws requiring a person to report any incident of sex abuse about which she or he learns. That this advice proves to be ineffective we see when the boy can endure the abuse no longer. Abandoning his faith (or maybe patterning himself after one of the vengeance-seeking characters in the Old Testament) after he reveals his father’s abuse during his church’s alter call, which results only in more abuse, he pours poison into his father’s bottles of liquor. However, we are not shown the results, and after the film’s title appears, the story jumps ahead when Mack seems to be a well-adjusted husband and father of three adorable children. (Neither novel nor film make any more references to the boy’s act of patricide, which does seem to be a strange omission!)
Mack (now played by Sam Worthington) and wife Nan (Radha Mitchell), living in Oregon, are justly proud of their three children teenaged Kate, Josh, and six-year-old Missy (well-played by Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, and Amélie Eve), all of them attending together their local evangelical church. It is Nan who refers to God as “Papa,” perhaps influenced by Jesus’ calling his Father Abba, “Daddy” when praying, the children also picking up on this.
Although Nan is prevented from going on their planned family camping trip, Mack piles the three children into their camper-hauling van and head for the mountains. On the way, they stop and view a spectacular waterfall plunging in a long narrow stream hundreds of feet down a cliff. Mack tells the myth of the Indian princess who sacrificed herself for her people, after which the tears of her grieving father became the waterfall. We see how perceptive little Missy is when that night she connects the sacrifice of the princess to that of Jesus.
After bonding with another family around a campfire, the next day everyone enjoys the lake, the two older children waving at their father as they paddle by in a canoe. Kate stands up to show off, thus turning the canoe over. Mack can see her head bobbing in the water, but not Josh’s. Diving quickly into the water, Mack swims out, finding his unconscious son beneath the canoe trapped in its webbing. Bringing him to shore, he frantically compresses the boy’s chest to force out the inhaled water. Everyone gathered around expresses relief when the boy comes around. However, Mack’s relief is short-lived, because Missy is nowhere to be found. Only the picture of the Indian princess whose dress she had colored red, like her own.
That night as the sheriff’s deputies mount a night-time hunt through the hills, they reveal that a man responsible for the murder of several other young girls was sighted in the area. Mack’s worst fears are borne out when they find Missy’s red dress, as well as her bloodstains in an old abandoned shack. There is no trace of her body. Not only Mack is wracked with guilt, Kate, whose foolish canoe antics caused everyone on the beach to focus their attention on her and her brother, feels responsible as well.
Back home Mack cannot move beyond his guilt and pain, as well as his feelings about being abandoned by God. That winter, while removing the heavy snow from his driveway, Mack sees a note in his mailbox. On a small folded piece of white paper is a typed invitation to meet at the shack, signed Papa. Upset, thinking it might be cruel joke from his best friend across the street, Mack confronts Willie (Tim McGraw). Both are astonished that there are no footprints in the snow around the mail box. After checking at the Post Office, Mack thinks it might be from the killer, so he packs a gun into his winter gear, and because Nan and the children are away, he takes Willie’s truck and heads up for the state park where the tragedy had begun. While trekking through the snow laden forest, he is joined by a slender bearded Middle Eastern carpenter. As they approach the Shack the snow disappears, giving way to lush green grass and flowers—and the once dilapidated shack is now a lovely wooded cottage into which Mack is welcomed by two women of color, an African and an Asian calling themselves Papa and Sarayu (Octavia Spencer and Sumire Matsubara). His guide is Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush). Mack is thus astonished that his invitation is to spend the weekend with the Holy Trinity. Some host(s)! There’s a light note from the beginning of their encounter with Papa’s introduction of herself– “I am…who I am;” “See? We’re already quoting Scripture.”
When Mack is puzzled that God should appear as a woman (indeed like the neighbor he had known as a boy), Papa replies, “Based on what you’ve been going through lately, I don’t believe appearing to you as ‘Father’ now would be particularly helpful to you. You’re not ready for that yet.”
It will be a weekend with quite a few conversations and just a little action—such as making biscuits with Papa, puttering in a garden with Sarayu, and walking on water with Jesus, the two at one point exuberantly running side by side across the lake’s surface. It will be those conversations about forgiveness, redemption, the nature of God and guilt, and sometimes arguments and angry charges by the troubled Mack, that change the latter’s life and allows him, after a near fatal crash involving a truck, to help his daughter Kate also to find spiritual healing.
The novel was severely criticized by evangelical leaders such as Chuck Couslon and several other leaders when it was published, and now the film also has been attacked by some leaders, as well as so many critics. (When one of the latter stated he felt nothing other than boredom during the film, I found this more an indictment of him than of the film.) Let me note several factors in the film that deeply moved me, even though I knew fully well that the basic plot was a faith-based formula (in that Mack would regain his faith):
There are so many neat visual touches in this film! Here are some of them:
- Papa replies to Mack’s accusation that God had abandoned his Son on the Cross (as well as Missy), to which Papa says she was there with the Son, with the camera in a close-up shot showing us the nail marks on her wrists. Papa says “Don’t ever think that what my Son chose to do didn’t cost something.”
- From the outside one night Mack sees Papa and Sarayu dancing joyfully in the cabin’s main room. This is a lovely depiction of God’s delight, carrying on the ancient image that God danced at Creation. There is a beautiful hymn by Richard Leach’s that you can hear (and see the fine words) on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ55zGuti04 . “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity” is set to the familiar tune Kingsfold, used for the familiar hymn “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem, and could easily become as familiar and as beloved as Sidney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” (We should also mention that this dance theme is shared by Hindus whose god Shiva is a cosmic dancer.
- Sarayu walks with Mack through a glade of wildly beautiful but chaotic swirl of flowers. She and Mack dig a hole, the importance of which will become clear later. The camera moves around high up to a spot directly over their heads, and we see an order in the chaos: at four spots around the pair the flowers form gorgeous pinwheels. This reminds me of the old illustration about seeing a tangle of knots and colored threads on the back of a large tapestry, and then moving to the other side to behold the beautiful picture that artists have made by weaving colored threads in and out of the cloth, similar to seeing God’s plan that includes the dark.
- Some reviewers said the scene of Jesus and Mack running together across the surface of the lake looked silly, thus completely missing the filmmakers’ intention of depicting the human Christ as one who enjoys engaging in human abandon.
- Mack meets Sophia, depicted here, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, as a woman, who guides him into a fuller understanding of judgment, an involved conversation that leads him to say if it came to a decision as to which of his surviving child should be saved and which sent to hell, he would choose himself to go to hell rather than either of them. Through the waterfall at the mouth of the cave he is granted a glimpse of Missy, who, romping with a group of other happy children, is as far from hell as one could be.
- The Canadian veteran actor Graham Greene portrays God near the end of the film, indicating that Mack is entering the most difficult part of his pilgrimage or spiritual transformation, the forgiving not only of himself, but of the killer of his beloved daughter.
- The scene in which Mack faces the one who had most wounded him: how is this like a scene from Fields of Dreams?
There’s more, much more this film than we can go into here. Many churches hosted discussion around the book, so now is the time to do so around the film, either now after going to a theater, as I know that the Presbyterian Church in Oxford Ohio is doing, or a little later when it is available in some form of video.
The film is not without its flaws, a couple of which I wrote above concerning the plot, but these are minor, and even if you object to some of the theology, the film can result in a great discussion of theology, especially the nature of perhaps the most difficult doctrine of Christianity, the Trinity. Writer William P. Young and Stuart Hazeldine have joined a long line of artists who have attempted to depict the Trinity visually, from Byzantine times to the present, with the icon of the Russian painter Rublev probably being the most famous. For an interesting essay on this with illustrations go to https://seeinggodinart.wordpress.com/2016/05/22/the-solemnity-of-the-most-holy-trinity/.
To sum up this review, I don’t really care so much about its doctrinal purity because it understands that all the manifold doctrines are meant to explain the unexplainable. That in the end, only one word is need to explain Christianity and the film, LOVE.
This review with a set of 21 questions will be in the March. 2017 issue of VP.