Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Shack: A Review

Yesterday, I went to see a movie called The Shack, a Christian fantasy which is based on a best-selling novel by a Canadian author. The film received an absolute mauling from critics. Indeed, the sneering reviews in The Guardian and The Irish Times resolved me to go to see it. (I'm much more often driven to movies by bad reviews than by good reviews.)

It wasn't, however, just secular and left-wing critics who ridiculed it. Catholic and Christian reviewers were also dismissive. Mark Kermode, an English film reviewer who describes himself as a Christian, was withering about the film in an on-air conversation with Simon Mayo, (another Christian), which is available on YouTube. (I suspect that Christian film reviewers often leap at the chance to slate Christian movies, to prove their critical integrity.)

In fact, the only good review I could find from a mainstream critic came from Michael Medved, an orthodox Jew, who gave it three stars out of four.

The Holy Trinity, plus one
The film follows a grieving father (Sam Worthington), whose young daughter was murdered by a pedophile, through a prolonged supernatural encounter with the Holy Trinity-- in the form of an African-American woman (the Father), a young Hispanic man (the Son), and a young Asian woman (the Holy Spirit). The bulk of the movie consists of discussions between the protagonist (named Mackenzie) and the Holy Trinity on the age-old riddle of why God permits evil. Mackenzie is furious at the Almighty for what happened to his daughter, and justifying the works of God to him is uphill work.

Reviewers attacked the movie on various grounds, and these are the main criticisms:

1) It's "Oprahfied", a "Disneyland" vision of faith-- twee, unchallenging, simplistic, overly glossy.

2) It's too talky.

3) Christian reviewers criticized the theology of the movie, from various perspectives-- most commonly, it was accused of universalism, the belief that everybody is guaranteed Heaven.

4) God gets off too easy.

5) It's just plain bad, on an artistic level.

Many reviewers compared it unfavourably to Silence, the recent Martin Scorsese movie about Japanese missionaries, which was lauded as a more "mature" exploration of faith.

It's plain to me that critics-- I mean both movie critics and literary critics, Christian or secular-- are perfectly willing to accept religious faith as a theme, as long as it doesn't offer any answers. They'll welcome a portrayal of faith that is troubled, doubt-ridden, ambiguous, and dark. But if you try to provide uplift and affirmation-- most especially, if you try to provide answers--  they don't like that. This is why Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor are considered "serious" Christian writers, while Chesterton and Lewis are dismissed as mere propagandists. It's why movies like Silence and Calvary get good reviews, while this movie was lambasted.

Well, I had no interest in going to see Silence, from what I heard of it. But I was very interested in The Shack, and I'm glad I went to see it. I give it four marks out of five.

Some of my readers might be taken aback that I would have any time for a movie whose theology is clearly not Catholic. In fact, there isn't the slightest reference to Catholicism in this movie, that I can remember. How can I praise it?

OK, let me ask this question in response: How many Christian movies of any kind get commercial releases? The answer is, of course, very, very few. Shouldn't we be happy when a movie gets into multiplexes which is explicitly Christian? Don't we want Christianity to be culturally relevant? Aren't basic themes which this movie addresses, such as God's infinite love for us, or the very concept of the Trinity itself, good as far as they go?

Indeed, I find it bizarre that quite conservative Catholics will often go to great lengths to "baptize" a movie like The Matrix, or whatever other movie happens to appeal to them, but then dismiss an openly Christian movie because its theology is wonky. That makes no sense to me.

Do Catholic readers shun Paradise Lost because Milton wasn't a Catholic? Do they consider that it has nothing profound to say about Christianity? I'm not comparing this movie to Milton, but the principle is the same.

Besides, as far as it went, I think the theology in this movie wasn't that bad. The much-criticized universalism, which may be explicit in the book, is not explicit in the movie. In fact, Poppa (the character who represents God the Father) solemnly assures the protagonist that sin always has consequences, and that "nobody gets away with anything".

Theologically speaking, the most admirable thing about this movie was that it was Trinitarian. I can't remember ever seeing the Trinity dramatized in a movie, ever. This is a whole movie about the concept. How can that be without value? (Funny I should be writing this on Trinity Sunday.)

Why is God the Father represented as a woman? Well, that is explained. The protagonist, whose own father was deeply abusive, poisons him (as a boy) in an early scene. (At least one reviewer ridiculed the convenient way we are shown the label "Strychnine" as he does so; a magnifying glass of some kind, perfectly positioned, happens to enlarge the words. Yes, this was horribly contrived, and unnecessary.) Poppa explains to Mackenzie that He appears to him as a woman because of Mackenzie's "daddy issues". Makes sense.

Several reviewers complained that Mackenzie's eventual conversion (it's hardly a spoiler that the Holy Trinity wins him over) is too easy, that he doesn't put up enough resistance, that he lets God off the hook too readily, that there's no real suspense because the outcome is preordained.

But this argument could be made about any movie that chronicles a spiritual journey. One of my colleagues insists that she doesn't like Groundhog Day because she finds Bill Murray's transformation unbelievable, while I find it wholly plausible. Who complains about Darth Vader's dying redemption in Star Wars? How plausible is Ebenezer Scrooge's change of heart, really? How do you judge such a thing? Indeed, the manner in which people form and change their beliefs or attitudes is, in my opinion, one of the most mysterious aspects of life. The Irish novelist Maeve Binchy lost her faith because she was disappointed by the Cenacle, the place where the Last Supper is said to have taken place. That makes no sense to me. Others have been brought to faith in God through Gothic architecture. That makes no sense to me either.

So much for psychological plausibility. What about the charge of "Oprahfication?"

The film is very handsome indeed. There is some very beautiful landscape scenery, and the whole movie has a glossy, rich look to it. As befitting a movie where God the Father admits to a taste for Neil Young, the music is rather schmaltzy. It reminded me of movies like On Golden Pond or The Bridges of Madison County. (As well as Stephen King movies; the non-supernatural male characters all tended towards the denim-wearing, folksy, grit-eating, aw-shucks masculinity which is common in Stephen King.) Personally, I like this whole atmosphere. Others may not.

Certainly, I could have done without some of the power ballads...

Is The Shack insipid? Bear in mind that this is a movie where the protagonist murders his father and then has his own daughter abducted and murdered by a pedophile. Having read the reviews, I was hoping that the latter plot development would be portrayed as obliquely as possible. It's not. True, we never see what actually happens to the little girl. But we do spend about twenty minutes suffering through her disappearance, the fruitless search for her, and the discovery of her dress in the mountain shack from which the film gets its title. This was easily the most gruelling part of the movie and I found it hard to sit through. But it's hardly insipid.
But what about after that? Well, there are a lot of knowing, beatific smiles from the three persons of the Trinity.  Mackenzie's family, even in the depths of their grief, are more like the sort of family you see on TV commercials than anything I've seen in real life. But it's not that bad. The Trinity is portrayed with a certain dignity, even while they are listening to music through headphones and drinking cups of coffee.

One scene which was rightly ridiculed, in my view, is a scene in which Mackenzie walks on the water of a lake, with Jesus's encouragement and help. Not only is this horribly cheesy, but it seems completely pointless.

Another scene, in which Mackenzie meets a woman called Wisdom in a cave, is good in itself-- I love cave scenes, and the movie needed some variety at this point-- but their discussion doesn't make a lot of sense. At one point, Wisdom asks Mackenzie (who has been insisting that evil people should be judged)  to condemn one or other of his surviving children to Hell. Presumably, this isn't really going to happen, but Mackenzie seems to take the demand (and the danger) seriously. He offers to go to Hell, in place of either of them. We see what the film is getting at here, of course, but it's a bit of a muddle. 

The film has been criticized as excessively talky. Well, this was one of the things which drew me to the cinema-- no film (or novel, for that matter) is ever too talky for me. I like ideas and dialogue. (If there are any novels that you can recommend to me as insanely talky, I'm listening...)

Another thing I really liked about the movie was its form. It reminded me of allegorical works of fiction such as The Divine Comedy, Piers Plowman, and the medieval play Everyman. I love movies which are set in a different level of reality-- a dreamworld, an imaginary world, a fictional world, and so forth. Inception is one of my favourite examples. Perhaps my favourite moment in The Shack was the moment in which Mackenzie passes from the real world to the supernatural realm in which he finds the Trinity-- from a snowy landscape to an idyllic, summery scene.

Reviews have suggested that the portrayal of Heaven (or whatever reality the Trinity are inhabiting, or appearing to inhabit) is rather banal and chocolate-box-like. But picturing Paradise is notoriously difficult. I don't think the movie does too badly on this score, perhaps because it doesn't try too hard.

Finally, I appreciated that this was such a blatantly didactic movie-- quite a rare thing these days.

On the whole, I would definitely recommend The Shack. I wasn't once bored, despite the fact that it runs over two hours. And I think Christians should support Christian movies, even when their theology leaves something to be desired.


  1. Great stuff as ever. Almost never get to the cinemas these days but I've seen this clip from Risen which makes me think I'd like to see it some day - although another part of me shrivels at the thought of filming the Passion. Have you seen it?

    1. Thank you!

      I haven't seen Risen...somehow, films about the actual life of Christ, or thereabouts, have never appealed to me. Even the Passion of the Christ. It's as though the Gospel writers have said all that can be said and everything else is somehow anti-climactic (although I am rather interested in reading the visions of Catherine Emmerich).

  2. I know what you mean.

    There are two quite great things in this clip though. I love the fact that the Roman officer pushes the door open with his sword - pushing open the door to his new life with the weapon that ruled his old. And the fact that, at first, he doesn't seem to see Jesus. The camera shows us his point of view simply pans across Him and then jumps back at the moment of realization. Great silhouette too when he steps back out of the upper room.