Released to the public on March 3, The Shack centers on the life of Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) who loses his daughter Missy (Amelie Eve) to a predator during a camping trip.
It happens in a flash as a canoe accident happens at the same time and nearly results in the death of one of Missy’s older siblings. Mack’s desire to be a good father stems from what he lacked in the relationship with his father and his recovery from harsh treatment his dad inflicted on him.
Compared to the book, the film had a few things that were off, especially near the beginning when a church had an altar call in an open tent and the characters had southern accents when it was supposed to take place in the Midwest. Other than that, it lived up to its potential—I would argue even past. The Shack is rich in its meanings through symbolism and imagery through the various characters, set, and costume designs.
The audience is first introduced to a solid image of a shack in shambles in the middle of a deep thick forest of frosted trees. The scene then switches to a flashback that shows Mack’s dad (Derek Hamilton) abusing his wife (Tanya Hubbard) and the camera, slanted and blurred somewhat, encompassing the emotional pain. Mack’s dad was a deacon, but also a hardworking farmer who drank too much when his lands didn’t get enough rain and would take his frustration out on his wife.
One day at church when the pastor calls his congregation to the altar, Mack has had enough. He cries to one of the other deacons to forgive him and the deacon asks for what.
“I can’t make him stop,” the young Mack said.
That sets the stage for his internal conflict of guilt that continues for the remainder of the film and what it symbolizes. “Papa” is a difficult word for Mack to swallow.
While Mack struggles with his own darkness, he does not let it affect the relationship with his children as an adult and he still raises them in church. In contrast to his childhood church where the congregation sang acappella, the one he attends with his own family sings along with an organ. At the same time, it has lively contemporary worship music. It gives the impression of a holy place where you are free to release your heart.
Mack also rears his children with the importance of the stories he tells. On the way to enjoy a camping trip together, they pass a waterfall and he tells them a story about an Indian princess who healed her people because she chose to sacrifice herself by jumping off a cliff. The myth concludes that the waterfall was made because of the tears from the Indian princess’ father.
Missy, who is observant, later asks her dad at the campfire if God is mean since he made Jesus die on the cross just like the Indian princess. Mack provides an answer which adults can tell he is dissatisfied with, but he still relays it to her. But the connection between the two stories implies belief in universalism and echoes it in many of the interconnected narratives from the other characters.
Shortly after Missy disappears and life eventually continues despite Mack’s guilt and pain, the audience eventually discovers that God is not who most believe he is.
Instead, after Mack overcomes his reluctance and his apprehension about a simple, but mysterious note supposedly from “Papa” inviting him to come to the shack for a visit, he learns what he has been told about God is shortsighted.
When Mack first meets God (Octavia Spencer) –known as Papa, a difficult word for Mack–he is actually a she, a loving mother who is “especially fond of” all her children and a black woman. It shows the complexity and the wonder of the depth beyond what is believed. Meanwhile, Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) is a young man with curls and a tenderness in his personality that is relatable and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), the Holy Spirit, is portrayed as an Asian woman who constantly mends the beautiful mess in the garden. By the way, I love Sarayu’s costume design because she is a gardener, except for in a few scenes, she wears loose blouses with printed flowers.
Part of Sarayu’s beauty in her personality lies within her peaceful face and her quiet presence. She barely speaks, but when she does, it is with passion and insight.
And she has collected every tear Mack has released and she speaks his mind when he hesitates to open it.
Throughout the film, the Trinity members encourage Mack to forgive in each of their own ways, but it is Papa who finally breaks through to Mack. There is a turning point when they stop in the middle of the woods and Mack stops because of the emotion that overcomes him. The camera cuts to a close-up of Mack’s hand in which a ladybug is crawling on it. Mack has the power to crush it, but the very moment he acknowledges forgiveness for Missy’s killer, the ladybug flies off. The reason why the connection is so overpowering for Mack is because the killer leaves behind a ladybug barrette after he took Missy.
One major thing I like about this film is that it has you thinking long after the credits have ended and that the film affected you to the point you don’t notice the theater workers coming in and start cleaning the popcorn from the floors and the seats.
While the film feels like it wraps up too easily with the heaviness that plagues the film, I appreciate the exploration of the questions often too difficult to voice. The film captures sensitivity in the aspect that love abounds in the middle of agonizing questions and life’s devastations, yet the promise of hope remains through the pursuit of answers.