The initial wave of faith-based movies – those medium-to-low budget dramas boosted by evangelical in-church word-of-mouth – diminished quickly in the wake of 2014’s expert-defying God’s Not Dead (budget: $2m, take: $60m). The studios swiftly entered the temple, and while that same year’s Heaven is for Real boasted a modicum of cinematic nous, few claims could be made for last year’s Miracles from Heaven, or indeed the inevitable God’s Not Dead 2 (budget: $5m, take: $20m), which existed merely to underline how its predecessor was box-office lightning in a bottle. Religion and commerce remained uneasy bedfellows.
With The Shack (***, 12A, 132 mins), this week’s adaptation of Canadian author William Young’s bestseller, we find the faith sector seeking salvation. Young’s tale of a man confronting his demons in a lakeside retreat occupied by a holy trinity wasn’t originally intended as megaplex fare. Written as a Christmas gift for the author’s children, it only went into publication when preachers Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings figured the story’s spiritual struggles might appeal to churchgoers. They did – and lo, the book became a minor sensation, logging years on the New York Times chart and garnering plaudits from no less a storyteller than Stephen King.
As copies passed between pews, The Shack sparked a doctrinal controversy Young surely didn’t envisage when his offspring first unwrapped his words. Some raised eyebrows at the depiction of God as a cheery African-American woman (Young: “I was trying to get as far away from that ‘Gandalf-with-a-bad-attitude’ God as I could”); others decried the decision to mark her with Christ-like stigmata. Heresy, or just a novel way of suggesting God’s empathy – that this deity literally feels their children’s pain? Several fulminating YouTube broadsides insist it’s the former; one problem with writing this allusive is that it invites unintended interpretations.
The film, certainly, feels defensive early on. As our narrator Willie (country star Tim McGraw, a reassuring presence for US audiences) puts it, “What I’m about to tell you is a little… well, a lot on the fantastic side. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.” It is, essentially, a question of belief. For Young, faith offers the possibility of an escape from hardship: when protagonist Mack (Avatar’s Sam Worthington) first receives his invite to the shack – signed, somewhat cryptically, “Papa” – he’s living alone and stubbly in a frozen-over shell of the home he once shared with his picture-perfect family.
Director Stuart Hazeldine’s deployment of the snow machine in this cold, harsh reality makes the Narnia movies look restrained, but then this cycle of movies has traditionally tacked towards extremes, leaving credibility behind. A flashback shows the young Mack being beaten by his actual father – more hardship – in a deluge that might give Noah pause for thought. The film doubles down on this notion of faith as a shelter from any storm – with some narrative justification, for it transpires that Mack has endured his youngest child’s murder, a tragedy that might well drive a man into seclusion.
The commitment is evident throughout the (long) running time. The Shack boasts better production values than its predecessors in this field, stretching to recognisable performers and functional visual effects – always a boon, whenever a film touches upon the miraculous – but it’s also a far more forgiving and inclusive endeavour than God’s Not Dead. Out at the lake, our troubled hero is nudged towards making his peace with the world by the most diverse Trinity ever assembled: our distaff Papa (The Help’s Octavia Spencer) joined by an Israeli Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and a Japanese Holy Spirit (model-turned-actress Sumire Matsubara).
If that sounds strange, it’s exactly that strangeness that grabs you: rarely can God have moved quite this mysteriously on screen. For starters, with its themes of infanticide and despair, this is simply a very odd story for a father to have penned for his children – and even if you accept it as an introduction to those trials awaiting us in the adult world, The Shack keeps defying established cinematic logic. Take the shack itself: a curious albeit vividly evoked safe space, all abundant scatter cushions, congenial company and bottomless apple pie. Is it God-given? Or is Mack just undergoing a really restorative Airbnb experience?
Not even a zealot could deny its flaws. The dialogue often clunks, and there may be no cutting around Worthington’s air of balsawood, no matter that this makes him an effective vessel for any teaching. (When led out onto the lake, he doesn’t walk on water; he floats.) Yet The Shack works in some small, peculiar way so long as it keeps returning to sights like Spencer kneading the daily bread while merrily listening to reggae. As images of God go, it’s unconventional – wasn’t the Devil supposed to have all the best tunes? – but like much else about The Shack, phenomenon and film, not altogether uncheering.
The Shack is now playing in selected cinemas.