Movie Review: Christian Themes in “The Shack”

In Featured, Movie & TV Reviews by John LaCrosse

–By Renard Bansale–

(Diretor: Stuart Hazeldine, 2017)

In 2007, William P. Young’s novel The Shack surprised readers throughout America, becoming a New York Times bestseller, so Hollywood producers quickly sought to adapt it for the big screen. I approached this film with some apprehension due to its overt Christian nature, since most of the heavy Christian films that I’ve seen in the past two years (which, to my surprise, only includes one Pure Flix film—Woodlawn) have largely failed to convince me that Christian filmmakers understand the peculiar subtleties of cinematic storytelling. (I say this as a Roman Catholic who attended a Catholic film school). The strongest examples couch the deeper theological material in a different subgenre, like Risen’s period procedural and Hacksaw Ridge’s war romance. After seeing The Shack, I can safely say that despite the apparent flaws and mostly conventional filmmaking, I was impressed with what the film got right.

Sam Worthington (Avatar) plays Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips. As Tim McGraw (a family friend) recounts in his bookending voiceover, Mack suffered abuse at the hands of his drunken father in his childhood. Now, he’s the hardworking father of a family of three. He dutifully, if a bit reluctantly, attends Sunday congregation with his family and respects how his wife (Radha Mitchell) and kids pray to God, referring to him as “Papa”. That all changes during a camping trip with his three children—Kate, Josh, and Missy. When Kate and Josh get into a canoeing accident near shore, Mack rushes over to save them—leaving Missy unattended. Upon returning with his two older kids, he discovers that Missy has disappeared. Authorities later discover that she was the victim of a serial killer, leaving Mack devastated.

Months later, Mack remains depressed and has alienated himself from his family and from God. It is in this state of mind that he happens upon an anonymous telegram, signed by “Papa,” inviting Mack to come to the decrepit cabin in the mountains where his daughter’s blood and torn dress were discovered by the police. Despite his rage and regret pushing him closer to suicide, Mack heads over to the cabin, where he meets—to his great astonishment—human personifications of the Holy Trinity (Octavia Spencer as “Papa”, Aviv Alush as Jesus, and Japanese actress Sumire as the Holy Spirit or “Sarayu”). There, the trio aid Mack in facing, accepting, forgiving, and moving on from the tragedy.

While The Shack doesn’t fully excite my cinematic palate, it does provide decent life lessons for everyone, Christian or non-Christian. First, kudos to the visual effects department for bringing life to the idyllic mountain lake getaway where Mack spends most of the story—one that any retreat coordinator would rush to reserve at once. The actors portraying the Trinity solidly convey (to the best of their ability) the soothing presence of each Person. The Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer was a fantastic choice to play “Papa,” presenting that inviting and nurturing personality found in the best of mothers. Compared to the other two, Aviv Alush’ Jesus is properly portrayed as a male Middle Eastern carpenter. (When Mack expresses to Jesus that he’s most relaxed around Him, Jesus responds, “That’s probably because I’m human.”) Lastly, it makes complete sense (at least to this critic of Filipino descent) to portray the Holy Spirit as a sprite-like Asian woman, since Asians naturally provide the world with the liveliest cuisines, a variety of intense combat styles, and of course, the best action films. Most of my doubts that the film would crumble in its portrayal of the Trinity disappeared when Mack asks, “So…which one of you is…?” and the trio simultaneously responds, “I am,” with no hesitation.

(Those uncomfortable with how a woman portrays “Papa” should remember to approach this story as a fantasy, not as complete theological truth. Also, Oscar-nominated actor Graham Greene plays the character at one point in the film, so at least the filmmakers can somewhat satisfy those concerned with gender portrayals. No male equivalent exists in the story for the Holy Spirit, however.)

The Shack succeeds most when it focuses on bountiful love of God and the healing and forgiveness necessary to experience His love. Mack expresses his anger towards God’s apparent negligence when he tells Papa, “Seems like you have a bad habit of leaving those you supposedly love.” With every philosophical obstacle he encounters, any of the three Persons responds simply but appropriately. Papa says, “There’s no easy answer that’ll take your pain away,” showing Mack her scarred wrists to demonstrate that even she suffered on the cross. In one sequence, a personified Wisdom, nicknamed “Sophia” (Alice Braga) guides Mack through a rigorous trial of harnessing judgment like God does, remarking at the end, “Doesn’t the legacy of brokenness go all the way back to Adam?…You want the promise of a pain-free life? There isn’t one.” One learns that God never wavers in expressing fondness for all mankind, teaching that “sin is its own punishment.”

However, the film’s theology does fall short, as does most Protestant material, when the subject of the Church and religion emerges. Easily the most cringe-worthy scene for me was when Mack and Jesus conclude their run across the lake (literally) and stop to take a break at the opposite shore. Here, Jesus claims, “Religion is way too much work. I don’t want slaves. I want friends,” as though he forgot that he specifically appointed a dozen men for the purpose of shepherding and safeguarding the one, true Faith. The Catholic Church as Jesus’ spouse is entirely nonexistent in this story, and Catholic readers of William P. Young’s original novel should be ready for that absence, which hints at tolerating non-denominationalism and indifferentism.

Elsewhere, an air of stiffness slightly impairs Sam Worthington’s performance, not to mention those moments when he tries to hide his Australian accent, despite acting well during the dramatic moments. Tim McGraw’s bookending voice-overs are heavy-handed, superfluous, and talk down to audiences. (The bookending voice-over is rapidly turning into the most prevalent cinematic cliche of 2017 and filmmakers would do well to tell their stories more effectively so as to avoid cutting corners using such a tool.)

If I were the most powerful man in Hollywood, I would prefer that films stray from stories overtly about religion. They usually never get them right, which can become a source of scandal for conservative-minded families aching for more wholesome entertainment. It’s one of my deepest and rarely-met desires to watch an entire film wherein characters live the faith (ideally Catholic) in their choices (even amidst violent or suggestive circumstances) as opposed to spouting it at every turn. With films like The Shack that will likely stand alone from other typical Christian offerings this year (or even next year) for its competence, I’m reminded of one of Robert Redford’s final lines from the classic, Best Picture-winning 1973 caper film The Sting: “It’s not enough…but it’s close.”

(3 out of 5 stars)

R.N.B.

About the Author
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature-film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard is currently pursuing his M.A. in Biblical Theology (Catechetical track) at JPCatholic after graduating from the school in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting).