By RICHMOND B. ADAMS
It has long been a maxim that within polite conversation, the two issues to be avoided are politics and religion. So while Stuart Hazeldine’s The Shack does not delve into the former, its focus upon the latter needs to be approached with caution. Originating from William P. Young’s 2007 novel, the film centers upon Mack Phillips’ (Sam Worthington) attempt to grapple what had been his basic acceptance of evangelical protestant Christianity with the murder of his youngest daughter. Some months later, Phillips is invited to reenter into a conversation with “Papa,” but to do so in the same woods where his child had been murdered. It is through the mixture of theological affection amongst the woods that Hazeldine’s film achieves some cultural complexity. Namely, that within American life dating from the Puritans, there has been concern about the relationship between the Christian God and the wilderness. As such, the notion of a faithful person, which in his way Phillips personifies, attempting to clarify one’s faith goes to the center of our national life. In short, Phillips’ walk into the woods, whether within time, a dream, or something else, restates something as traditional as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the ghastly events of the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, and both Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
Americans have, as the film suggests, forever “wrestled” with our notion of God (which has firm biblical basis in both Christian testaments), and our view of the wilderness as either open, hostile, or indifferent. Hazeldine’s film portrays more to imagine, and does so in both emotionally and intellectually stretching ways. The Shack, however, does not simultaneously attempt a comprehensive reconciliation between claims of faith and events from life. What it does accomplish, despite being about 30 minutes too long and occasionally overly thick with pathos, is to explore one man’s sense of what it means to be a man beyond a horrid personal loss that, not coincidentally, also reflects our national devastation following September 11, 2001. Within those boundaries, it is worth seeing and discussing…but doing so politely.
Four stars from five.