As an atheist, I usually face the task of reviewing faith-based movies with a bit of dread. Most of the time they are condescending, preachy, and present a very negative view towards anyone who hasn’t been “saved” as a Christian. That’s why “The Shack,” based on William P. Young’s best selling novel, threw me for a loop. It’s a religious movie with a surprising anti-organized religion message.
The story centers around a normal family man named Mack (Sam Worthington), who lives with his devout wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and three kids. The movie starts out the way most faith-based films do: we watch as the perfect American family is getting ready for church (why do all religious themed movies begin with this very same scene)? When Mack takes the kids on a camping trip and his youngest daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) is abducted and murdered, he spirals into a deep depression. A mysterious note soon shows up in his mailbox inviting him to return to the shack where Missy’s body was found and when he arrives, he is greeted by Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara) and Papa (Octavia Spencer), a.k.a. God.
What follows is a long-winded spiritual journey towards inner peace and healing that’s crammed full of preachy, sermon-like moments that are supposed to be uplifting. It’s extremely heavy handed, melodramatic and corny, a two-hours-plus clichéd theological lecture that tries to explain why God lets bad things happen and why forgiveness is the only way to find insight and enlightenment. The film asks yet never really clearly answers the tough questions, but at least it has the balls to bring up these questions in the first place — even if they are glossed over and hastily dismissed.
Of course dealing with grief is tough, but you don’t need religion to come to terms with a personal tragedy. This is what I found so strange about the film: it seems to contradict itself. One character actually utters non-ironically early on that “if it’s in the Bible, then it must be true,” yet the physical multicultural manifestation of the Holy Trinity literally laughs off some suggestions that are pulled directly from the Scriptures. The film presents a non-denominational belief and multiple gods, but panders to those who feel emptiness in their lives and a need to believe in some sort of higher power.
Your own beliefs (or lack thereof) will obviously effect your outlook and take on this film, but it has this oddly universal appeal to it instead of just another divine Christian love fest that preaches to its choir of faithful followers. That’s what makes “The Shack” so damn interesting and downright bizarre. This is a curious and unconventional method of Biblical storytelling that manages to appease those of different faiths (including the “nones”) as well as piss off some die-hard evangelical Christians.
Movie lovers probably won’t take too kindly to the silly looking special effects (I’m sure that I wasn’t supposed to find the scene of Mack and Jesus running on water to be a laugh-out-loud moment) or Worthington’s struggles to keep up a convincing American accent (he repeatedly falls back into his native Australian speaking patterns for most of the movie), or the fact that he spends a great deal of his time onscreen crying a lot. There’s also a cheesy performance from Tim McGraw as the narrator and neighbor, a part that he has perfected after years of roles just like this one. Spencer is perfectly cast, as she has such a natural, calming presence that exudes warmth, charm and sincerity, and Alush plays the sort of Jesus that you’d want to grab a beer with after work. The actors do their best to reign in the material (there’s a lot of story here and it gets a little overwhelming), but the movie is overall surprisingly well made and decently directed by Stuart Hazeldine.
“The Shack” is a strange movie to be sure, a spiritual opus that promotes a belief in gods while also presenting a very atheistic viewpoint of living your life to the fullest, believing in the comfort of love, spreading kindness to everyone you encounter, and finding beauty in the joy of the human experience. Perhaps it’s my own lack of belief that makes me interpret the movie in this way, but it seems that the entire story was a fabrication and simply a dream encounter in Mack’s mind — but I suppose the ending is left open so you could view it another way too.
This film is far from profound or thought provoking, but it’s not as harmful or hurtful to outsiders as most doctrinally centered films tend to be. Take the religion and gods out of it and the end message that everyone should just stop being such a-holes to each other isn’t so bad after all.