The Miles Between

Taylor Sheridan is on a roll. After two decades as a supporting actor in Hollywood, including long-running roles on “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy,” he switched to writing in 2015. His first screenplay was for one of the best thrillers that year, Sicario. He followed that up with Hell or High Water, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Now he’s also taken over the directing chair for his third screenplay, Wind River. Where the first two movies were action flicks with a strong emphasis on character, Wind River flips the equation. It’s a character drama with searing explosions of action along the way.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a hunter for Fish and Wildlife Service who eliminates predators such as wolves and mountain lions when they attack herds of sheep or cows in the central Wyoming area. It is rough, untamed country where there are miles between houses, and the Wind River Reservation takes up 2.2 million acres outside the towns of Lander and Riverton. Lambert picks up his son from his estranged wife Wilma (Julia Jones), who’s headed to Jackson Hole to interview for a job, and takes the boy to see his maternal grandparents on the reservation. Lambert’s former father-in-law, Ben (Apesanahkwat), shows Cory a cow killed by a mountain lion and its two cubs. Lambert goes hunting, but what he finds in the snow is the body of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the daughter of his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham). She had run barefoot through the snow until her lungs burst from the cold.

Lambert and the reservation police chief, Ben (Graham Greene), meet an FBI agent dispatched to investigate the death. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is literally dropped into the wrong season; her regular assignment is in Florida, but she was attending a conference in Jackson which made her the closest agent. The medical examiner can’t call the case a homicide based solely on the cause of death, which would allow for the deployment of FBI agents. Instead, Jane’s on her own, and she recruits Lambert to help her discover why Natalie died as she did. She doesn’t know that Lambert is haunted by his own tragedy that closely mirrors the case.

Renner and Olsen have shared the screen twice before (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). They have a mature chemistry together underlying their characterizations in this film. Renner’s Lambert reflects the stoic fatalism found on the surface of the residents, but beneath there’s a roiling ocean of emotions. Jane Banner could have been a comic fish-out-of-water character, but between Sheridan and Olsen they’ve created a character of intelligence who knows what she doesn’t know and seeks to compensate. The supporting cast is outstanding, in particular Gil Birmingham (who played Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water) as the father who can only grieve in private.

The story slides to tragedy as we learn what happened, though the movie has more hope than you usually find in such a film. Hope is needed in real life, since Native American women are the only population group for which figures on disappearances are not kept. While the movie was being filmed at the Wind River Reservation, tribal leaders visited Sheridan and told him at that time there were 12 unsolved murders of young women on the reservation, out of a population of 6000. Tribal police were stripped of the right to arrest and prosecute non-tribal people for crimes committed on the reservation in 1978. The jurisdictional mess caused by this has led to many perpetrators going undiscovered and unpunished.

As often happens, art reflects real life.

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The Second Book of Job

Most people are acquainted with the beginning and the end of the Biblical story of Job. They know about God letting the Accuser, Satan, test Job’s devotion through all manner of calamities. (The book reflects an earlier Hebrew understanding of Satan as a servant of God, before influences from cultures that conquered Israel turned it into an adversarial relationship.) Job passes the test and has all he’s lost restored to him plus more beside. In between, though, there are 36 chapters of dialogue between Job and three of his friends – though with friends like these you don’t need enemies. They’re convinced that Job has sinned, because why else would all these calamities happen to him, and they basically tag-team Job to get him to confess. Job resists and keeps his faith in God. In the end God re-enters the scene, puts everyone in their place, and honors Job’s faithfulness. In a way, you could think of the new movie The Shack, and the book on which it’s based, as a different version of Job. In this case the calamities have broken Job’s faith, and instead of facing unhelpful friends, Job goes directly to an encounter with the Trinitarian God to gain understanding of suffering and grace.

Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) grew up in the church, but it was a toxic relationship. His father, a church elder, was a closet drunk and wife-beater. Mack breaks his silence in the church to help his mother, but instead of receiving help he ends up being beaten himself by his father. A couple of decades later, the adult Mack is living in Oregon. He’s married to a wonderful woman, Nan (Radha Mitchell), and they have three beautiful children: Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe), and Missy (Amelie Eve). They attend church with their neighbor Willie (Tim McGraw), and Nan and the children have a close relationship with God, who Missy calls Papa. Then, while the kids are camping with Mack, Missy is kidnapped. The FBI believes she’s been taken by a predator who’s struck five times before. While canvassing the area, they find Missy’s dress and blood on the floor of a dilapidated shack, but her body’s never found.

By that winter, Mack is a shell of a man, devoured by his grief. Then a note appears in his mailbox, addressed to Mack only by name. It says they haven’t talked for a long time and if he’d like to meet, then come to the shack the next weekend. It’s signed Papa. Mack goes to the shack, wondering if it’s a ploy by the man who took Missy. Instead as he approaches the building he steps from winter into a beautiful summer day and finds the shack changed into a lakefront cottage. Inside are Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

It took ten years for this bestseller to make it to the screen. At one point Lionsgate was the primary production company, and Forest Whitaker was attached as director. Summit Entertainment took over for Lionsgate, though they’re still a distributor. Whitaker dropped out and Stuart Hazeldine was selected instead. Hazeldine was known mostly as a script doctor, having done uncredited rewrites for Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he’d also received good reviews for his debut feature, a psychological thriller entitled Exam. The Shack had a modest budget for a major US feature these days – $20 million – and Hazeldine makes it look like he had five times the money with which to work. The screenwriters – John Fusco (Hidalgo), Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham – created an adaptation that is remarkably faithful to the original book.

Worthington, Spencer, Mitchell, and McGraw are all well-known and bring a competency to the movie that is too often missing from what’s identified as Christian film. Often that’s used as an excuse: “It’s a good film for a Christian movie.” The Shack doesn’t need that qualifier; it’s a good film that happens to deal with Christianity (more on that later). Spencer is wonderful as the personification of God throughout most of the film, in particular for her ability to deliver witty zingers to Mack while still communicating deep love. I will note two minor quibbles with Worthington: early in the film, he shows Mack’s depression by speaking so softly you can hardly hear him; later, when emotions come out, so does a trace of his Australian accent. Otherwise, he was effective in a challenging role.

The film also features Graham Greene and Alice Braga in smaller roles, though they are integral to the story. A pleasant surprise was the performances of Avraham Aviv Alush and Sumire Matsubara as Jesus and the Holy Spirit respectively. (Sarayu, the name used for Matsubara’s character, is the Sanskrit word for “wind,” which is how the Spirit is described in the Bible.) Alush is an Israeli actor who’s blessedly natural in the role. He’s also not blond or blue-eyed, which is a large step toward authenticity in my humble opinion. Matsubara comes across at first as delicate and ephemeral, but later we also see her strength. Megan Charpentier is also excellent as the daughter who comes close to following her father’s path.

Usually films dealing with Christianity or the Bible wind up at two ends of the spectrum:  faithful but amateur, or high-end mush. This can be seen in a couple recent releases. On the faithful amateur side there’s God’s Not Dead, with its stiff acting, cardboard characters, and a script that had the subtlety of a 2×4 to the head. (You could also include any film that Kirk Cameron’s done in the last two decades.) On the other side you have high-budget Hollywood pictures that make a complete mess of the story, like the Russell Crowe Noah or Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The satirical site the Babylon Bee recently ran a story that the Oscars would hand out an award for the least-offensive Christian movie this year. “Academy members reportedly sat through hours of grueling Christian films in an effort to select the one that was the least offensive in terms of quality, production value, writing, and acting.” As with all satire, it’s just a little bit past reality.

The Shack charts a different course by dealing realistically with problems that so many people face – problems that have driven people away from God. The old question that sums up the stumbling block for many people is, “How can God be a God of Love when He lets these horrible things happen?” The Shack confronts that question straight on, in a way that is both spiritually valid, and emotionally raw. The author has said that the shack is a metaphor for the soul.

The book was written by William P. Young as a way back from his own spiritual nadir. He’d been a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, living among the cannibal tribes until he was six and sent off to boarding school. At the school there was systematic abuse, a Protestant version of the Catholic priest scandals, and Young was a victim. While he was outwardly okay with a wife and family, inside he was broken and reached bottom after having an affair with one of this wife’s friends. He wrote “The Shack” over the course of six years as he struggled with the nature of God in light of what had happened to him. When he finished, he printed copies and gave them to his family as a literary mea culpa. Following that, he tried to get it published. Twenty-six publishers rejected it, so Young self-published. Word of mouth pushed it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback novels, with it selling over 4 million copies in a little over a year. Young now has an arrangement with the major publishing house Hachette.

While many have embraced the story, there has also been a strong negative reaction to it among Evangelical Christians. Some object to its portrayal of God as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as a mysterious asian woman; they claim it promotes feminism, or a form of goddess worship. Others say it’s just a novel or just a movie but it shouldn’t be taken in a theological way. A professor at a conservative Christian college in Portland wrote an article about the book calling it “the greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years.” His main problem with it is termed “universalism” which is the idea that all humanity can be saved by God. (It’s the same controversy that caused the Evangelical church to disown Rob Bell when he published “Love Wins.”)

There is a strong strain of paternalism in some branches of Christianity. The thought that God could exhibit female traits strikes them as heresy, even though in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says of the people of Jerusalem, “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” This insistence on the dominant male God has become a stumbling block for many today who, because of abuse or other family problems, cannot relate to the idea of God as a loving father. In fact, Papa explains to Mack that that’s the reason for her form. (Later in the movie, Octavia is replaced by Graham Greene for a sequence because, as Papa then tells Mack, “For what you face now you need a father.”) For me, my answer for this is: If you proclaim God as omnipotent – all powerful – then why limit God by your own prejudices?

While The Shack is written as a novel and presented as a film entertainment, that doesn’t negate it as a source of theological thought and reflection. For many, the novels of C.S. Lewis, such as the Narnia series or “The Screwtape Letters,” are as much theological commentary on life as they are novels. And it should be remembered that almost all of the popular imagery of heaven and hell comes not from the Bible but from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” written in 1320.

Universalism flies in the face of conservative Christianity because of their strong focus on sin and repentance. It has its seed in the Protestant Reformation, which was partially the result of the Renaissance Popes monetarizing grace through the selling of indulgences – basically “Get out of Hell Free” cards. As happens, reactions can go far to the other side of the spectrum. Later in the Reformation some put forward the idea of predestination, that a person is formed as righteous or fallen before birth and there’s nothing they can do about it. That teaching has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, but some believers are offended at the idea that people they consider horrible sinners could still receive grace from God.

The Shack, though, features a sparkling explanation of grace and redemption through the course of the film. The answers it gives aren’t easy or simple, since the questions aren’t easy or simple either. But for those who bring up universalism as their complaint against the film, they should remember that after the rich young ruler went sorrowfully away in the gospel, the disciples wondered how anyone could be saved. Jesus’ response was. “For man some things are impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Again, we shouldn’t let our human understanding and prejudices shrink God down to our size.

So some Christians will be upset that The Shack doesn’t fit their notion of God. I heard someone created a meme with a picture of the shack along with every heresy they believe the story contains. Other Christians will find it illuminating and affirming (I’m one of those). The focus is on restoration and renewal of the relationship between Mack and Papa, and through that the restoration of the reader/viewer’s concept of God. Throughout the movie, the dialogue gives you plenty to think about, but it goes down like a cup of fresh, cold water.

But what if you feel like you are a Job, burdened and broken? What if you’ve lost any belief in God, or have turned away because God now seems to be the mascot of politics and of those who put condemnation before love or grace? What if you know your own shack is run down and hardly habitable, but you see no way to repair it? Then please do see this movie.