My wife and I saw the sneak preview of the new motion picture, The Shack. I posted a review earlier of the bestselling book (click here to read it) of the same title by William Paul Young, so I wanted to follow up with this review of the movie.
The Shack is a deeply emotional film about a man named Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, who is angry at God because of the abusive and tragic circumstances he experienced as a child and as an adult. The film tells the story of a deeply personal tragedy that occurs at a shack in the woods, and how Mack gets a letter from God, inviting him to return to the shack and deal with his pain. Mack returns, and there meets God in three persons, who engage him in experiences and conversations that allow him to rediscover the goodness of God. After he resolves these issues and learns to accept forgiveness and give forgiveness, Mack returns to his family a changed man. The plot uses flashbacks to tell about the tragedies in his life. Much of the story is framed as a visionary dream, which is a major departure from the plot of the original book. The plot moves well at the beginning and the end, although it may seem a bit long in the middle, if you are not engaged in the conversations.
Octavia Spencer plays “Papa,” a character representing God the Father, who appears to Mack as an affectionate African-American woman. She explains that since Mack could not relate to God as a father, due to his childhood experiences with an abusive father, Papa has chosen to appear as a mother figure. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are there. The Son, representing Jesus, is a Middle Eastern man, played by Abraham Aviv Alush, and Sarayu (the Spirit), played by Sumire Matsubara, is represented by a young Asian woman who glows and shines and sometimes just disappears. Although God is represented as three different persons, they act in unison, as one person continues a conversation with Mack that he had earlier with the other person.
The movie deals powerfully with the question of why God allows suffering. Papa, The Son, and Sarayu do not offer easy answers, but they help Mack to get a bigger picture of how God loves, forgives and redeems. For example, when Mack angrily tells Papa that Papa could not be good and allow the Son to suffer on the cross, Papa shows nail scars in her own wrist, and says with tears, “Don’t think that I wasn’t also there when my Son died.” In another scene, Jesus sends Mack on a path to a cave where he meets a female called Wisdom, who lets Mack sit in the judgment seat of God and see what it is like to be a judge, an experience that overwhelms him, reminding him that no human should try to play God, and also hinting at the reason Jesus had to die for our sins. Unfortunately, the emphasis on God’s love is so strong, that a balanced statement about God’s holiness is lacking. God reminds Mack that sin has consequences, but when Mack bluntly asks Papa about God’s wrath, Papa could have said that God is holy and offended by sin, but instead only emphasized God’s goodness and love.
The film quality
This is a quality film production. There are breathtaking nature scenes, scenes filled with color and light, darkness and drama. The music is engaging, but not distracting. The main actors and supporting cast are all convincing in their roles. Octavia Spencer exudes love and kindness as Papa, and Sam Worthington explodes with emotion and pain as Mack. Country singer Tim McGraw does a good job as a supporting actor, playing Mack’s friend, who becomes a narrator of the story.
Comparisons with the book
Fans of the book will probably also like the movie, and some critics of the book may like the movie better than the book. I don’t remember hearing any profanity in the movie, although the book has some profanity. The portrayal of God the Father as a woman is explained sooner and more clearly in the movie than in the book. There were several passages in the book that critics accused of teaching universal salvation (that all people will go to heaven), particularly some conversations Mack had with the persons of the Trinity. Most of those controversial conversations do not occur in the movie, although the movie does repeat the words of Jesus that He is not a “Christian” (which came across as humorous to me both in the book and film.) The movie puts more emphasis on God’s love than on God’s judgment, although it it reminds the viewer that God does make judgments of heaven and hell and that sin does have consequences. After the movie was over, I asked my wife, who has not read the book, if she thought the movie taught universal salvation, and she said, “Not at all.”
Spoiler alert: If you have read the book, you will notice that the movie ends a little differently. It makes the whole encounter at the shack into a visionary dream, and while the book has Mack actually finding his daughter’s body and giving it a proper burial, the movie shows that happening as part of his dream. Then the movie focuses at the end on Mack going to church with his family and having a new faith in God. The movie added the friend as a narrator of the story at the beginning and end, which I thought was a good framing device for the story.
I liked the original book, despite its flaws, but I liked the movie even more. What I like the most is that it deals with the important issues of pain, suffering, the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ. I wept several times as I thought about my own sin and need for forgiveness, and it moved me to want to be more forgiving towards others. My wife commented that the story touches nearly every person at some level in their lives. This film offers a vivid story that can open up discussions with our friends and neighbors about how our hope is found, not in an old rustic shack, but on an old rugged cross.