March 03, 2017

Double review: "The Shack" and "My Scientology Movie"

By Carl Kozlowski *
Official movie poster for
Official movie poster for

This weekend brings us two movies about religion: the Christian-themed movie “The Shack,” based on the huge bestseller by William P. Young, Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, and “My Scientology Movie,” an alternately funny and fascinating documentary on the notorious cult by BBC humorist Louis Theroux.
 
Before we get into these, I want to give a plug to a new season of CNN’s series “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact ,Forgery.” The first season proved a hit last year by focusing on well-known Pastors, theologians, and scholars, examined famous religious artifacts, and brought to life the places and people from the Bible touched by Jesus and the Gospel.
 
The new season explores such topics as the childhood home of Jesus, the tomb of King Herod, the bones of St. Peter, relics believed to shed truth about Doubting Thomas, the Pilate Stone, and the tomb of Lazarus. It premieres Sunday at 9 pm ET/PT and 8 p.m. CST, the link to the season 2 trailer can be seen here.
 
Meanwhile, “The Shack” follows the story of a man named Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington). The opening is a flashback to himself as a child, who was severely abused by his father, a Protestant church elder who was an alcoholic. This part of his story and much of the film is told through a voiceover narration by his friend Willie (Tim McGraw), and after some poignant and powerful opening moments, the film jumps to Mack’s adult life as a father with a churchgoing family.
 
But deep down, Mack feels distant from God due to his unresolved childhood trauma with his father, and when his youngest daughter is kidnapped and later found dead while on a family camping trip, Mack is even more despondent and angry with God. He receives a strange note in the mail one day during snow season, saying it came from “Papa” – which was his dead daughter’s favorite name for God – and inviting him to come visit the shack where his daughter’s body was found.
 
At first, Mack thinks the note is a sick joke, but he grabs a gun for safety and heads out to the woods to find out what’s happening. At first the shack is old and decrepit, but soon he encounters a young, Middle Eastern-looking man (Abraham Aviv Alush) who convinces him to come in.
 
There, Mack finds that the man is sharing the shack with a middle-aged black woman (Octavia Spenser) who says she’s the “Papa” who wrote the note, and a woman (Sumire Matsubara) who calls herself Sarayu. It turns out that these three are supposed to be physical incarnations of the Holy Trinity, with Papa as God the Father, the Middle Eastern guy as Jesus and Sarayu as the Holy Spirit.
 
The reason they’re in these human forms is that they are presenting themselves to Mack in a way that he can process easily, since he’s afraid of father figures. The rest of the movie follows his long emotional journey through the visit with the three mysterious figures as they help him handle his grief and answer his questions about life, death and existence in a way that helps him heal emotionally and spiritually.
 
Some might see this concept as odd, but it’s clear that the makers of “The Shack” have good intentions and the movie does handle some of life’s biggest questions in a positive, Christian light. The book it’s based on was embraced by millions of Christians as well.
 
The look of “The Shack,” which is directed by Stuart Hazeldine, is remarkable, with lush cinematography and impressive locations and effects. The performances are touching and top-notch as well. The one big downside is that, at 132 minutes, the movie could have been about a half hour shorter and been more effective.
 
Beautifully made with strong performances, “The Shack” is a movie that gives answers to life’s toughest questions. It’s one of the best films in the recent wave of the Christian genre.
 
A completely different kind of movie about religion – one that is playing only in major cities but worth seeking out – is the half-serious/half-comical new documentary “My Scientology Movie,” by BBC reporter and humorist Louis Theroux. He’s like a thinner, British Michael Moore and very funny.
 
The movie opens with Theroux explaining in narration that he wanted to make a documentary about Scientology, but was refused access to the cult’s members and facilities. He in particular had hoped to interview current cult leader David Miscavige, but was taken aback by the vitriol with which he was denied.
 
Theroux opts instead to find a few key former Scientology officials who had left the cult, in particular a former violent interrogator named Marty Rathbun, and ask them about their experiences. But when they, and particularly Rathbun, are reticent to open up about the bleakest moments, Theroux decides to use a psychological trick to make them be forthcoming: he says he’s shooting a narrative movie using actors to portray Miscavige and Scientology’s most famous member, Tom Cruise, and asks Rathbun and the others to be at the auditions and on set, as the actors recite lines and act out tirades that are utterly shocking.
 
The result is a harrowing and fascinating documentary, with a strong deadpan sense of humor throughout by Theroux. There are also suspenseful and disturbing moments in which Theroux, Rathbun and others are stalked and filmed all over California by mysterious people showing up with cameras and harassing them.
 
Add in the re-enactments and the memories they inspire in Rathbun and others, and “My Scientology Movie” becomes an invaluable look at how cult mindsets work. Viewers should be forewarned about the barrage of F words in two or three scenes re-enacting the behavior of the cult’s head David Miscavige, but most adults and especially those eager to learn about this “cult to the stars” (designated so because of its particularly strong outreach to movie and TV stars) will find this fascinating and entertaining viewing. 

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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