I cannot defend a single moment of The Shack, yet somehow the entire film works. It’s something you have to see to believe. Maybe that’s appropriate.
In The Santa Clause—another movie about a man who gets knocked on the head, journeys to a mystical place, converses with supernatural beings, and becomes a better man because of it—an elf tells Scott Calvin, “Seeing isn’t believing; believing is seeing.” In The Shack, the opposite is true. The Shack is a movie about a man who can’t believe in God until he sees God, has conversations with God, bakes bread with God, gardens with God, competes in a footrace across a shimmering lake with God.
None of this is a surprise to you if you are among the millions of people who read William P. Young’s 2008 book upon which this film is based, but seeing those events realized on screen is an odd experience. What is fantasy in print, becomes surreal on screen. Our imaginations have a way of normalizing strange literary material. Cinema confronts us with strangeness. The Shack works as long as you go along with it, as long as you let it affect you on an almost subconscious level, the way dreams affect us. It’s kitschy, but it’s also earnest. It’s uncritical, but it’s also deeply empathetic. It’s childlike.
When I was a small boy, a close family friend named Charlie died. People would ask me how I was doing, and I would say I was fine, because Charlie was in heaven “doing high dives with Jesus.” My grandfather died a short time later, and I used to imagine him in heaven diving from a great height into a glass of water, like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. I think this was my way of transcending the fear associated with the loss I felt because of the deaths of these men whom I loved and who loved me. They were in a place without fear, so I didn’t need to be afraid either.
The Shack is about transcending fear too, and it works on that same level. “Mack” (Sam Worthington) is struggling to deal with a couple of losses in his life, and so God brings him to a place where he can deal with those losses. What happens is fantastic, ludicrous, explicitly symbolic. He finds peace, though accepting it isn’t easy.
In the same way that The Wizard of Oz provided emotional catharsis for a society reeling from the trials of the Great Depression, The Shack is a kind of balm for a contemporary society living perpetually under a cloud of terror born both abroad and in our own backyards. The Wizard of Oz is another movie that is indefensible in almost every moment—Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is sublime; the shift from black and white to color as she walks out of her door is magical—but taken all together, it works masterfully. The Shack is ultimately a testament to the persistent love of God, and any quibbles we could make about representation of the Divine Presence; excessive sentimentality; a lack of theological complexity or cinematic quality – are missing the point entirely. “Perfect love casts out fear.” That’s the only thing The Shack is trying to accomplish. That’s a noble and mighty endeavor. If you accept it—and for some of us, doing so won’t be easy—it just might work.