In Paradise Lost John Milton tried to “justify the ways of God to man”. Stephen Fry did the opposite in more recent times on The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne, castigating him for what he saw as his cruelty to, among others, children.
The latter is a theme that’s apposite to this tale of a Waltons-like family trying to come to grips with the Madeleine McCann-style abduction of their daughter Missy during a camping trip in Oregon.
The faith of her father, Mack (Sam Worthington), is severely tested after Missy is snatched before he reaches regeneration in the most unlikely of ways, being summoned by God (‘Papa’) to the shack where Missy has supposedly been murdered.
The manner in which Mack finally accepts God’s grace (and his daughter’s celestial bliss) is the main business of this generally uplifting but occasionally simplistic – and indeed scripturally unorthodox – film.
Call me old-fashioned but I didn’t think it was a good idea to make ‘Papa’ into a jolly Black woman (Octavia Spencer). Nor was I impressed by the casual depiction of Jesus (Avraham Alush), especially in the scenes where he walks on water with Mack. This is performed in a frivolous manner and will, I feel, play into the kind of prejudice Richard Dawkins tends to pounce on when he demeans Biblical tracts as ‘children’s stories’.
The film should have telegraphed Mack’s catharsis through more nuanced (and less pat?) means. As things stand what we’re presented with is more ‘Hollywood’ religion (at times almost soppy) than a more deeply-felt variety of it. This conduces to a kind of blandness that flies in the face of Mack’s befuddlement. All too often he appears content to play a dim contestant in a game in which his interlocutors toy playfully with him.
Neither was it advisable, in my view, to personify the Holy Spirit and ‘wisdom’ as two beautiful women who dispense advice that, while well intentioned, sometimes comes across as more smug than spiritual.
But the film grows on you. If you accept the rigorous manner in which Mack is used as a conduit for emotional alchemy it will reward you with its genial charm.
In the central scenes he goes to the eponymous snow-clad shack to vent his wrath on her abductor. After his rendezvous with ‘Papa’ the snow disappears, becoming transmuted into a ‘garden of Eden’ environment. Here, after some gentle proddings from the Blessed Trinity he comes to an awareness that God has a plan for all of us. And a central part of that plan is not to judge – even murderers.
Cynics, I fear, will scoff at the perceived Sunday School approach of the film with its ‘bumper sticker’ didacticism but its overall message about the overweening power of love is well taken, as is Mack’s embracing of forgiveness instead of a more tempting thirst for retribution in the face of almost unbearable grief.