This week, I’ll be looking at the 2017 Christian drama film The Shack. Adapted from the 2007 novel by William P. Young, this film tells the story of a man named Mack Phillips who spirals into a deep depression after his youngest daughter is murdered during a family camping trip, causing Mack to question his innermost beliefs. In the midst of his grief, Mack receives a mysterious and personal invitation to meet with God at a place called “The Shack”, which also happens to be the location where his daughter’s dead body was found. What will Mack find out on his journey?
In most faith-based films, God is a presence, but he’s a barely visible, off-center one. He’s a character who influences events, but that doesn’t mean we see a man in a robe and a white beard. In The Shack, we really do see God, or more precisely, we see Octavia Spencer, aglow with impish insight and beatific grins, as if she was on hand to give a message to Morgan Freeman: There’s a new God in town.
Of course, Mack is no stranger to pain. We learn that Mack’s father was such a mean drunk that, as a 13-year-old boy, Mack poisoned him. Despite the hell his father initially put him through in his youth, Mack never lost his faith. His daughter, the one who was killed, grew up calling God by the nickname “Papa.” Mack is somewhere between skepticism and awe when he pulls a letter out of the mailbox that’s been delivered (with no apparent footprints in the snow). Almost as miraculously, it was written on a typewriter from the ’70s, judging from the note’s font.
The note said that it’s been a while, and that he should drop by the shack. Its signed “Papa.” reluctantly, that’s exactly what Mack does, which looks like a wintry frozen death scene, but then, just when he’s on the verge of giving up hope, along comes Jesus played by Avraham Aviv Alush. The snow suddenly, and quite literally melts away. as Mack is led to the shack: a summery refurbished version, like the bed-and-breakfast of your dreams where Thou shalt not commit tasteless rustic décor. It’s here that Mack meets the deity formerly known as Papa, played by Spencer as an endlessly benevolent matriarch of the universe who bakes biscuits and listens to reggae on her iPod, and whose attention is focused entirely on Mack, even though she’s got a lot on her plate . . . and I don’t just mean the exquisite breakfasts she presides over.
Spencer wants to help Mack heal. But to do that, he’s going to have to leave aside his agony and anger. He’s going to have to forgive.
The strangest thing about The Shack, is that all the rage and terror and dark-side vengeance that Mack has to learn to transcend is something we’re told about, but we never actually see him mired in it. Sam Worthington, frankly, doesn’t seem like the sort of actor who gives a good death wish anyway. He’s a wholesome hunk of earnestness, with no curlicues of anything offbeat. That’s why he seems all too right to play the hero of a cautious, soft-edged and squarely photographed bare-bones Christian psychodrama. This film is like a close encounter with God that’s like an instruction manual for those who prefer their faith mixed with sentimental teardrops.
Mack must take a journey into the past to escape his demons, and to forgive the original sinner (his father). He heals his demons with the support of his new trio of counselors. First, there’s Jesus, the Messiah-as-mensch who teaches him how to walk on water, which is the film’s one token supernatural touch.
Next there’s Sarayu, the Holy Ghost, played by the Japanese actress and model Sumira, who seems to be on hand mostly to round out the ethnicity of the cast. Lastly, there’s Spencer’s Papa/God, who’s so jolly and benign that she makes the embrace of faith seem like sunshine and lollipops. The film’s message is, “Have no fear! God truly is right here with you.” All that’s missing is a weekend spa treatment.
The Shack has a real chance to connect commercially, because even though its drama is mushy, at heart it’s a bit of a theme-park ride, in which you get to know what it’s like to hang out with God and make friends with Jesus. However, in real life religion isn’t nearly so reassuring. It’s daunting, and our culture is starved for films that portray religious feeling in a way that’s both reverent and truthful. Unfortunately, The Shack isn’t one of them as it reduces faith to a kind of spiritual comfort food. But thanks, in part, to movies like this one, maybe that’s what faith is on it’s way to becoming. So as result, I’m going to give this film a score of 4 out of 5.