An important warning: if an audience is not prepared to spend two hours reflecting on God, imagining God, challenging God about evil and suffering, whether the audience consists of believers or non-believers, then better to stay away. This is definitely a film about God.
The Shack was a religious bestseller and is now brought to the screen in the tradition of the faith-based films. As has been said, there is quite a deal of explicit religious talk and imagery, not necessarily persuasive for every culture because this is quite American and may not appeal to other sensibilities. However, in the spirit of openness, there is a great deal to commend in The Shack.
It has a basically significant narrative, an introduction to the central character, Mack (Sam Worthington) who is treated harshly by his alcoholic father, also an elder in the church. This means that Mack does not have a genial image of God as Father. However, he marries Nan (Radha Mitchell) and they have three children. They attend the local evangelical church, and are encouraged by a friendly neighbour, Will (Tim McGraw – also supplies some of the songs for the background).
There is a rather harrowing flashback while Mack is clearing snow from the front of the house, slips and falls on his head and loses consciousness. He remembers the family going on a picnic and, in the middle of a happy event, the youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted. This has an even worse effect on Mack and his anger, resentments, attitude towards God.
This is where the screenplay runs the risk of being too twee but also dares itself to make good images explicit.
Mack finds in his letterbox a typed message from God, signed Papa (one of the twee aspects that might be a bit offputting). Mack is invited to go back to the shack where they previously searched for Missy. Borrowing Will’s truck and leaving him stranded, Mack heads off to the mountains, to the wintry shack, taking a gun.
And this is where the film begins its quite significant surprises. Mack is led from the winter into a beautiful summer landscape, flowers and gardens, a lake, a comfortable house. The audience has previously seen Octavia Spencer give the young Mack a slice of pie but here she is, admitting to Mack when he asks that she is I Am. The man who has led Mack is, in fact, Jesus himself and the woman who appears is the Spirit. Interestingly, God is maternal, and African-American woman, Jesus is played by an Israeli actor and the Spirit is played by Japanese actor.
Later, Mack will be led to a cave to an experience with Wisdom, played by Brazilian actress, colours broker, and a further journey for him to test his capacity for forgiveness, where I Am is played by a Native American Indian, Graham Greene. (So, the Everyman in need of conversion is an American white male – though he is played by an Australian as is Nan, his wife).
As has been mentioned, the challenge of the film is to imagine the Trinity in human form, I Am as creator and sustainer, a jovial and genial Jesus (including walking on water and Mack and Jesus sprinting on water), and a dignified Spirit-figure who is creative in her garden.
But the screenplay also incorporates many of the issues which test those who question cultural in human suffering. Some prefer a more philosophical/theological discussion about the nature of God. Here, it is conversation, in human terms, where God is able to talk about being so preoccupied with pain that vision of hope is lost, that God shares in the grief and pain, and is desperate to be with people in suffering. In an interesting touch, the wound of the nail is seen in the wrist of cab I Am. (God has experienced suffering through Jesus’ passion.)
Mack’s experience can be seen as a spiritual journey, dark nights, glimpses of God, the holy, and experience of spiritual direction. And, in the vein of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation, the message is that violence and cruelty cannot be excused but they can be forgiven.
This is the kind of faith-based film that serves as a confirming of faith rather than a proselytising experience.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting