Today we’re going to be talking about what could arguably be 1 of the most polarising films to come out in a number of years. We’ll mention first of all that it’s (technically) a Christian movie, then we’ll mention how Christians hate this movie – not necessarily because it was a bad movie in design, but because it’s difficult to decide if it fits into a particular theology and whether it leaves room for metaphor or artistic license. In the process, I’ll be reviewing this in two ways – one as a movie goer, the other as a Christian. Today, we’re talking about The Shack.
I’ll also add that I have not read the book, and I am unaware of the theology of the book’s author, Paul Young, outside of what some of his critics said after I watched the film. So this will not compare the film with the book – but it will include some theological observation of the movie. So let’s continue.
Our story revolves around a man named Mackenzie “Mac” Phillips. Mac had a rough childhood, as he was brought up by an abusive, alcoholic father who also had a significant position in their church. After humiliating his father one Sunday morning by telling a church elder of the abuse, it gets worse from there. So to stop his father from beating him and his mother, he went on to poisoned the booze in the house. Whether or not Mac is charged with his father’s murder is never addressed. But considering he was a boy and made the elder an audible witness, and it could be taken as self defence, perhaps he was relieved. Who knows.
Fast forward about 30 years later, Mac is married and with three children, Kate, Josh and Missy. While on a Camping trip, Kate and Josh accidentally tip their boat over in the lake, and after rescuing them; Mac notices that Missy has gone missing (no pun intended). He then discovered that she had been murdered by a Serial killer and her body was found in a hut in the woods.
Months pass, it’s now winter. The family was torn apart by the tragedy, with at least three family members blaming themselves for it. After slipping on some ice, Mac notices an anonymous letter with no stamp or return address in his mail box, which was signed by “Papa”, his wife’s nickname for God. The letter tells him to go to “The Shack”. Mac then goes to the shack with a gun, and after meeting nobody there, was about to end it all…Soon, a man appears in the woods, and brings Mac to an area that was more Spring than winter – to a cosy looking house run by a familiar face – The African American woman who lived across the road from him when he was a kid, and who once gave him a slice of Pie to eat when he needed to get away from the house. She reveals herself to be God The Father. The man who Mac followed reveals himself to be Jesus. While the young Japanese woman nearby is named Sarayu, and is the Holy Spirit. Here, Mac asks the Trinity all of the questions he needs answers for…as a Man who lost his daughter, and is angry at God for it.
Now to discuss the details, both creation-wise and theology-wise:
We’ll start with the acting. Here a lot of it is solid, with the main exception being Sam Worthington as Mac, who has a habit of going back and forth between Oregon, USA and Sydney, Australia within his accent. He shows some range, but he didn’t convince me too much. I remember him from James Cameron’s 2009 film ‘Avatar’, where he played Jake Sully, the main character…i.e. The worst main character in action and sci-fi film history. Some could say my perception of him is tainted by Avatar, but nope, he’s just not very good – plus he has little to no screen presence.
The characters, as some of us know, are one thing that gives this film a lot of bad reviews. You have God the father being presented as an African American Woman, Jesus being played by an Israeli man (For those who haven’t seen the 2004 film ‘Saved!’, there’s a dialogue exchange where 2 characters argue over whether Jesus was white. It’s meant to be a joke aimed at some sections of the American Bible Belt, even though every Bible clearly states that Jesus is Jewish), and the Holy Spirit being played by a Japanese Woman and is named Sarayu. The reason for “Papa” being an African American woman is because, according to her, Mac wasn’t ready to be presented with the image of a Father Figure, since his experience with a “father” is far from a pleasant one. Jesus is presented as an Israeli, and believe it or not, this is the first time an Israeli has ever played Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush from Karmiel), and plays the role very well. There’s a real friendliness to his interpretation. Sayayu’s name comes from Sanskrit, a language that’s holy within Hinduism, and the name means “Wind”. I assumed some Christians would complain about this – but they complained more about the fact that the Holy Spirit is presented as Female…even though the name of the Holy Spirit in both Hebrew and Aramaic is Ruach Ha Kodesh, which is female.
The Story of The Shack could be described by some as Unorthodox, and I’m not making reference to a denomination or suggesting it’s incomplete – I’m suggesting that it goes at a different pace. A different kind of film. In terms of a threat or a hero’s struggle – the film is gentle, and many will point out that there is no chase or thrill in the third act. The most difficult things to watch take place before Mac arrives at The Shack for the first time, which is a bad idea when plotting a story, but we keep in mind, this is for an audience that is looking for spiritual edification rather than exciting twists and turns when they’re watching it.
The music features a number of Christian Artists such as Dan + Shay, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum, Hillsong UNITED (whose music is often covered in various Pentecostal churches) and Franesca Battistelli. It’s all very nice, gentle and feel-good, and has its place.
The CGI was pretty good, and roughly on par, if not better, than plenty of CGI on TV shows edging towards the water mark. It’s not (good) Marvel Cinematic Universe quality, but it’s pretty well done, and did a nice job creating this beautiful garden that appears out of winter.
The cinematography is strong, but not spectacular. Everyone was framed well, the aerial shots are beautifully done, especially of the garden, and every key shot works as a great narrative-driven photograph.
The art style has very good presentation, very much like an advertisement of small town and rural America with great colours and locations. Nature never goes out of style, so it’s a good aspect.
Would I recommend The Shack?…Yes, and probably a lot more than most, depending on who you are. It’s seen as a film that only preaches to the choir, and could be the subject of debate to everyone who watches it for many more years to come. But in terms of how to present the character of God to men – there are few that could match this in demonstration. Are there flaws? Absolutely. Does it use creative license? No doubt, and there’s a lot of it. Is it correct in all aspects? Nope! But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get something good out from it. Asking God why he lets bad things happen is an excellent question that needs answers, and this film answers it better than most.
Acting: ***1/4 (*1/2 for Sam Worthington)
Characters: *** (**** for the Trinity)