“The Shack”

 

            OK, first, full disclosure:  I am a person of faith.  Therefore, I approach this movie from a certain personal perspective.  I'm a Christian, so much of what is referenced here resonates with me.

My guess is that a person from another point of view would perceive this movie quite differently.

            “The Shack” is a kind of spiritual fantasy film.  A guy who is deeply grieving gets hit on the head, and then experiences a lengthy sort of dream/projection sequence where he thinks he's awake, and in the process experiences a psychological breakthrough on his emotional issues.

            Mack (Australian Sam Worthington) is a loving father with a beautiful wife and three adorable children, and he enjoys a happy life, managing to conceal much of his early trauma from an abusive father.  But a tragic accident involving his youngest child sends him into a complete tailspin.  He can't get over his anger.  Formerly a churchgoer, he now distances himself from religion, because he's angry with God for allowing the tragedy to happen to him.  He's so caught up in his own grief that he's unable to see the pain the rest of his family is going through, and the distance that is growing between them makes everyone feel isolated and alone.

            One day Mack receives an invitation in his mailbox from “Papa,” inviting him to The Shack, which is a nightmarish place in Mack's mind, because it's associated with the loss of his youngest child.  Mack decides he has to go, so he “steals” the truck from his best buddy, Willie (Tim McGraw)---well, Willie wanted to go with him, but Mack knew he had to do this one alone.  He felt like he was going to go meet his demons.

            What he found at “The Shack” was that he met God instead.  “Papa” appears in the form of a black woman (American Octavia Spencer), who's wearing an apron, and busy kneading dough to make bread.  Then we meet her son, Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush----who, appropriately, is from Israel), who's dressed in jeans and boots, and a long-sleeve shirt that's not tucked in with the cuffs always rolled up.  Then, there's the Spirit, Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara---a tall Japanese model), who seems to be always reflecting the light.  Together they comprise, yes, the Trinity, but forget all that orthodox religious doctrine, they act just like regular people---mostly.  That is, they prepare meals, they eat and drink and laugh and tell stories.  But Jesus, besides working in his wood shop, manages to take Mack for a walk on the water, and the Spirit invites Mack to help tend a wildflower garden that is overgrown and lovely but also needs pruning and tending---like Mack's spirit does.  After a private session in a cave with “Widsom,” Sophia (Brazilian Alice Braga), “Papa” then re-appears in another form, this time a Native American man (Graham Greene, who's a Canadian of the Oneida tribe).  And he takes Mack on a walk through the woods to a place where it's the most difficult for him to be:  where he needs to forgive in order to heal, and be able to love again.

            Yeah, OK, it sounds hokey.  And it is, when you try to describe it from a plot development standpoint.  But English Director Stuart Hazeldine somehow takes a screenplay written by three people based on a book written by three people and melds the story into a sustainable narrative.  There's a lot of ways to have problems with it:  if you're into traditional denominational religion, then you're going to find argument with the way the Trinity is portrayed.  If you're in that “spiritual but not religious” category, then you'll probably feel that there's too much traditional hymn-singing and scripture quoting (though some of it's almost playful).  And if you're not a fan of pop psychology, you're going to cringe at all the language about letting go and moving on and living in the present, etc.  And, of course, if you're an agnostic or an atheist, it's mostly going to sound like a lot of nonsensical baloney. So in some ways, the way it's presented is not going to be completely acceptable to anyone.  But there's something that feels authentic here, beyond the trappings of prescribed expectation.  This movie can touch the deep emotions in ways that few films dare even attempt.  And that makes for a poentially unusual moviegoing experience.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When has something happened to you that threw you into an emotional tailspin?

2)                  How would you classify yourself on the religious/spiritual spectrum?

3)                  How do you explain it when “bad things happen to good people”?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association