This is a film that feels like an emotional and moral reawakening.
I went to see The Shack with a great deal of doubt. Though growing up a Catholic in a small Southern Indiana town where I served mass during my grade school years, I gave up any form of organized religion years ago. There are many reasons, but it might best be reflected by Buffy St. Marie’s song from Billy Jack (1971), “Do It In the Name of Heaven, You Can Justify It In the End”.
However, since Director Stuart Hazeldine’s film stars two actors I greatly admire, Sam Worthington (Avatar (2009) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016)) and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, I overcame my trepidation and bought a ticket. And with no apologies, I must admit that I left the theater overcome by the heartbreaking, uplifting experience that left me still battling back tears of joy.
In the film, Mr. Worthington plays Max Phillips, a happily married father of three who suffers from childhood memories revolving around the death of his abusive, alcoholic father. In the process, a monstrous tragedy occurs that is similar to that experienced by Casey Affleck in last year’s Manchester by the Sea.
With his wife (Radha Mitchell) staying at home, he takes his three children on a camping trip near a large lake. When he dives into the water to help save his older boy and girl after their canoe collapsed, he returns to find his eight-year-old daughter missing. Learning that a pedophile has roamed the wooded area for some time, what transpires leaves his entire family traumatized beyond words.
The film draws its title from a dilapidated, abandoned small hovel where Max was forced to observe a blood stained wooden floor where he identifies his daughter’s red dress found nearby. As time passes, Max receives a short letter in his mailbox inviting him to revisit that wretched shack. The letter is simply signed “Papa”. Overcome with grief and curiosity, Max takes supplies and a handgun to see what awaits him. What he discovers and experiences is as emotionally powerful as anything you are likely to see on the big screen.
Falling under the guidance of Papa (Ms. Spencer), who appears to be God herself, and her young son Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), he is forced to examine not just his own life, but life on Earth. In the process, Max has to discover how to live a fulfilling life when each day is wrapped in agony. He questions the existence of any deity that would permit his daughter to be killed by an assailant. He is left wondering how any human could find happiness under those circumstances.
Ironically, this is not a film that preaches one religion over another. It simply looks to parts of the Bible for guidance, a work embraced by Christians, Muslims and Jews. And while Atheists may not buy in to the stories, most still seek to follow the basic moral code laid down for everyone.
What Max gradually learns is that you can’t find love and happiness if you can’t forgive. Death will take us all at some point, and judgmental people are likely to be so consumed by anger that will destroy their own lives and those they love.
In this case, Max confronts his agony after also meeting a woman called Wisdom (Alice Braga) and the male Papa (Graham Greene). Max had to accept the ugly reality that he could only restore his family if he found a way to forgive the very man who killed his daughter. In the process, Max learned a fundamental principle of life, namely that wretched souls are not born that way, but develop in a society where they have little or no control.
As I watched Max kid around with Jesus as they raced over the lake surface, I couldn’t help but think how the moral of this film applied to our criminal justice system here in the United States. Like it or not, we base everything from large prison terms to the death penalty on nothing more than hatred and vengeance. We pretend that this will give some type of comfort to those who lost a loved one, but we are kidding them as well as ourselves.
Yes, people need to be punished for criminal violations. However, my wife, a distinguished attorney who has fought the death penalty her entire life, acquired a poster long ago that now hangs in my office. I have displayed it for you here, as it defines the meaning of this film.
This is a movie about having faith in the human spirit. It calls upon us all to put away hatred, resentment and animosity and replace it with joy, love, forgiveness and laughter. The time spent on Earth for everyone would be far better if we finally acknowledge that the most condemnable terrorists were once lovable children.
One of the brilliant achievements of this film is that it leaves you in doubt whether Max’s encounter with God and Jesus at the shack actually happened. Relaying his experience to his family after regaining consciousness in a hospital following a car crash that occurred on his original journey to the shack, Max was forced to wonder whether his encounter with God was actually a product of his time spent in a coma.
But whether his moments at the shack actually happened or emerged from his unconsciousness really didn’t matter. After all, doesn’t history repeatedly prove that genius has frequently emerged from the subconscious?