By Preston Wilder
There’s a missed opportunity in The Shack and it comes when God is in the kitchen, fixing dinner and listening to music on Her earphones. “What if God was one of us?” warbled Joan Osborne back in the day, and that’s also the approach favoured by this Sunday School tract. God is played by Octavia Spencer, Hollywood’s African-American voice of omniscient wisdom now that Morgan Freeman is too old and too grumpy – but the missed opportunity comes in that we never find out what God is listening to. Not only are there rich theological questions here, but think of the product placement! What band wouldn’t pay big bucks to be identified as God’s background music of choice in Her little private moments? You’d think someone would have more business sense.
This is by far the worst film at the cinema this week – in fact, it’s excruciating – yet it also offers the most to talk about. What’s it doing here, for a start? Christian cinema is a cottage industry in the States, but the (very successful) likes of God’s Not Dead never made it to our shores. I assume it’s to tie in with Easter, but it still seems unusual: we don’t have much Sunday School attendance in Cyprus, or the Christian TV channels they have in America – and we’re certainly not used to being lectured on religion when we go to the cinema. Can you imagine what’ll happen if a gang of rowdy teens goes to the multiplex on a night when everything else is sold out, and ends up with this? They’ll tear the place down.
Sam Worthington is Mack, who spends a weekend in a mountain shack with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God, as already mentioned, is Octavia, with her expression of benign amusement (I expected someone with a white beard, says Mack; “I think that’s Santa,” comes the waggish reply). Jesus is a handsome Middle Eastern type, the Holy Spirit a svelte Asian lady, and Native American actor Graham Greene also appears in a scene where God decides to take on masculine form for reasons known only to Himself. This is a film about ethnic minorities coming to the aid of white America – though Mack doesn’t want their help, mourning the death of his daughter and blaming God for the tragedy.
The Shack is two hours of didactic sermonising (some will call it propaganda), the lesson of the day being that God’s essential goodness isn’t incompatible with bad things happening. The ‘What if God was one of us?’ approach comes in handy here, conflating an omnipotent spirit with a loving father, like any father. (Mack’s wife and kids call God ‘Papa’, presumably not after Hemingway; our hero’s doubts have a lot to do with his childhood relationship to his own abusive father.) At one point Mack meets the spirit of Wisdom, who preaches compassion; our hero protests that bad people should be damned to Hell – so Wisdom asks him which of his own two (surviving) children he’d choose for damnation, which of course shuts him up. Does God, being all-powerful, really need to make such a choice though? Discuss!
This is the kinder, gentler face of the Bible Belt: God doesn’t punish (“Sin is its own punishment”) and salvation lies in forgiveness. Hard to argue with any of this – yet the film is still static, wishy-washy and way overlong, and there’s also a questionable side to its teachings, underlining the role of religion as a form of social control. “When all you see is your pain, you lose sight of Me,” God tells Mack, and Jesus later urges him to look away from the blackness, “look at Me” instead. Religion is being offered as a refuge, or perhaps an escape – a way to solve problems without actually having to ‘look’ at them, the opposite of the self-empowerment preached by therapy culture. Wisdom also laments the fact that people nowadays judge Good and Evil subjectively – i.e. according to what feels right – leading to war and chaos. Wouldn’t it be better if we used an objective guide, e.g. the Bible? Wouldn’t it be better if we all thought a little less?
Christian cinema seems to be inching towards the mainstream in the US. The Shack has a relatively starry cast and the closing credits also reveal, for instance, that the cinematographer is Declan Quinn, a well-known name who shot Rachel Getting Married and Leaving Las Vegas. The early scenes do have some interest, if only for the glimpses of a different America; it’s intriguing seeing families who pray unselfconsciously, or the way Mack’s wife stays behind when her husband accompanies the cops to the place where their daughter’s body has been found (a Disney heroine would’ve led the charge). I’d actually be quite fascinated by a truthful drama about the everyday lives of a Christian-fundamentalist family – but instead this goes for mumbo-jumbo, empty reassurance and platitudes posing as wisdom. Like that kitchen scene, it’s a missed opportunity.
DIRECTED BY Stuart Hazeldine
STARRING Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell
US 2017 132 mins