“The Shack” is Canadian author William Paul Young’s look at healing from a Christian point of view. Praised and condemned equally upon its 2007 release, it became a bestseller which begat a film of the same name starring Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer. Some loved the book’s depiction of how God works in our lives; others called it heresy. The movie is likely to ignite similar theological conversations but my complaints are of a more cinematically secular nature.
Worthington is Mack Phillips, God-fearing family man. Loving husband to Nan (Radha Mitchell) and dad to Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe) and the precocious Missy (Amelie Eve); he goes to church, works hard and spends as much time with his family as possible. A weekend trip with the kids is a wholesome good time—there are endless choruses of the campfire classic “I Met a Bear” and loads of roasted marshmallows—until little Missy goes missing, presumed of abducted by a fugitive from justice. When her little red dress is found marinating in a puddle of blood in a shack in the woods all hope is lost. Missy is gone and she won’t be back.
Her disappearance changes everything. Mack has a crisis of faith and feelings of guilt and remorse haunt the family. When Mack finds a note in his mailbox reading, “Meet me at the shack,” he becomes upset and confused. There were no footprints in the snow to and from the box, and, more mysteriously, it was signed “Papa,” Missy's nickname for God.
Borrowing his best friend’s (Tim McGraw) four wheel drive Mack heads for the shack. “I gotta do something,” he grunts, “and this is all I got.” There he finds the rundown shack where his daughter’s dress was found, a desolate building almost buried in snow but just around the corner is something else, something otherworldly. Steps away is an Eden, a sunny, warm and welcoming place with a shack. Inside the humble home are Jesus and Sarayu (Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara), led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer). Is it a dream? Has he died and gone to heaven? “Why did you bring me back here?” he asks. “Because here's where you got stuck,” replies Papa.
Here he begins the most painful journey of his life, the road to forgiveness.
“The Shack” is the very definition of a church basement movie, a film programmed with a very specific audience in mind. Aimed at a Christian audience willing to embrace its message of love and forgiveness while overlooking some of the controversial parts, i.e. the depiction of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is a sermon come to life but with too much off screen narration, really heavy-handed imagery and clunky dialogue like Papa’s declaration that, “God is especially fond of Neil Young.”
“The Shack” is very earnest, a movie that tackles one of humanity’s great questions, “Why does God let bad things happen?” without adding much to the argument. Bad things happen, we’re told, simply because it is God’s will. It is eternal wisdom wrapped in a movie that never met a point it couldn’t belabour or a scene it couldn’t overplay.
Worthington and Spencer are good actors but the precious material sucks any kind of grit out of their performances. We’re left with Worthington’s one-note portrayal of the stages of grief coupled with Spencer’s calm to the point of dull work as the all-knowing and slightly sassy deity.
Bad things in life may be God’s will but I lay the blame for this bad movie directly on the shoulders of director Stuart Hazeldine who infuses this story with all the depth and insight of a “Davey and Goliath” cartoon.