Dir: Stuart Hazeldine
There’s been a renewal of sorts. Have you noticed it? A batch of Christian-themed movies has passed (quickly, mostly) over movie screens in the last few years. Do you remember Heaven is For Real (2014), God is Not Dead (2014) or its imaginatively titled sequel God is Not Dead 2? Or the plethora of Left Behind movies? These films come with a certain bent, mostly evangelical. But there have been others, too: last year’s Silence, Risen (2016) and Last Days in the Desert (2015) to name a few. These have a generally less in-your-face approach and try to do something a little more creative.
So which category does The Shack fall into?
First of all let’s acknowledge the difficulties in making faith-based films. Even that term is loaded! The nuances of faith are many and for a film to please enough people to turn a profit, often the lowest common denominator is the target. US evangelical churches are large enough in numbers and members to be considered a viable market for film. On the other hand, remember Last Temptation of Christ? Controversy has dogged films like this which try something different.
The Shack is based on a best seller novel though it's more a kind of theology book by stealth. It features a story of sorts with long conversations and longer monologues designed to share contemporary popular ideas about the nature of God and faith. The script writers' task is to take this string of conversations and turn them into a movie with dramatic payoff.
Mack (Sam Worthington) is a parent grieving after the abduction and death of a child. He struggles to understand this reality in the light of his faith. A mysterious invitation to The Shack, the location of his child’s death by someone called Poppa leads him, yes I’m going to say it, on a journey of self-realisation. Poppa is his wife’s term of choice for God, and at the shack he meets the three persons of the trinity. Poppa is played mostly by Octavia Spencer who you might recall from Hidden Figures though Graham Greene, a native Canadian actor subs in later on. Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) is a rugged bloke, a middle eastern type in a flannel shirt and hiking boots. Sarayu (meaning wind in Sanskrit) is our Holy Spirit analogue played here by Sumire Matsubara. That sums up the thing I found most appealing about The Shack: the diverse and incarnational nature of the portrayal of God. But even here the slant placed on the masculine portrayal of Jesus was off-putting. I do applaud the effort made to veer away from a portrayal that would have won points with a large portion of the American audience. Unfortunately there’s not much more to say in a positive vein.
Where the book spends many pages in dialogue (sermons, really) the movie dispenses trite aphorisms and slogans. Written through a thick veneer of mawkish sentimentality, the issues of God’s presence and absence and the nature of evil don’t get the treatment they deserve, though Mack seems quickly persuaded by these counselling sessions. The price of the movie runtime is that the emotional arc for Worthington’s Mack Phillips is curtailed unrealistically. While I was grateful that the speeches had been largely abbreviated, the “show, don’t tell“ rule of filmmaking delivered only unconvincing moments of Mack doing some cooking with Poppa, CGI gardening with Sarayu and sprinting with Jesus across a lake (I am not making this up).
In the end, The Shack leaves the viewer satisfied only if one’s idea of faith is armchair variety at best. Where a film like Silence struggles with faith in a corporate and individual sense to breaking point in order to reach the profound, The Shack treats faith as something confirmed by a good plate of American pancakes. Once God is willing to show up and convert you face to face, then faith becomes literally unnecessary.
So is this a film worth seeing? I’m glad I saw it, because it provides a snapshot of one aspect of popular culture’s version of what marketers have decided should appeal to a considerable portion of American faith. In doing that it tells me something worthwhile about the world we live in. I can imagine it would be useful for a theology class or small group to deconstruct the film as an exercise.
Remember those categories I talked about back in the first paragraph (basically evangelical or progressive)? The Shack tries to be both; something for everyone, to hit all targets. It aims for profundity butachieves only superficiality in terms of story, theology and filmmaking.