Based on a best-selling novel by William P. Young that was initially self-published before being picked up by major publisher Hachette (and not without some legal wrangling over the actual authorship along the way), The Shack is a faith-based film that tells the story of Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington), a husband, father, and devoutly religious man whose youngest daughter is abducted from a campsite while on a family trip. With only her bloody clothes found in an abandoned shack near the camp, Mack spirals into a deep depression and undergoes a tremendous crisis of faith – until he one day receives a mysterious note in his mailbox.
The note is signed “Papa,” a painful reminder of Mack’s own tortured history with his father, but also the nickname his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) uses to refer to God. The note asks Mack to visit “Papa” at the same shack where his daughter’s clothes were found – and Mack, thinking more that this is a taunt from his daughter’s abductor than an actual message from the Almighty – makes for the isolated forest in which the shack lies waiting.
There, he finds not his child’s presumed killer but watches as the shack is transformed into a beautiful, inviting cottage – where he is encouraged to stay by “Papa” (Octavia Spencer), as well as a Middle Eastern carpenter (Aviv Alush) who never gives his name but which you can only guess. There’s also a young Asian woman named Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), whose actual identity in this trinity is quickly established as well.
Up to this point, The Shack is a slow-moving yet mildly engaging mystery, at least if you’ve never read the book, even as it’s hampered by the TV-movie panache of its director Stuart Hazeldine (whose only other feature credit is the little-seen 2009 psychological thriller Exam), not to mention the wooden performances from Worthington (his accent noticeably slipping throughout the entire film), Mitchell, and country singer Tim McGraw as his befuddled, almost unbelievably patient neighbor.
When we reach the shack, however, the movie comes to a standstill as Mack and his three hosts (no pun intended) begin a long, tedious series of conversations about forgiveness, redemption, the nature of God and guilt – with the only spark coming from Spencer’s usual energy and her way with a few of the more comic lines (“I am…who I am;” “See? We’re already quoting Scripture.”)
Interestingly, it was apparently some of God’s more irreverent dialogue, as well as the diverse personification of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that drew criticism of the novel when The Shack first came out. After all, we can’t have two of the Holy Trinity appear in the bodies of non-Caucasian women (and how refreshing it is to see a Christ that actually looks as how the ethnic Jesus might have appeared).
That nod toward the diversity of a true God is one of the few bright spots of the film, especially given the lily-white, picture-perfect, church-centric conservative fantasyland where Mack and his family and friends reside. It’s too bad, however, that Alush and Matsubara can’t keep up with Spencer; both seem only capable of smiling vacantly while delivering their platitudes flatly.
Platitudes and nuggets of supposed insight, often couched in enigmatic statements (“Can’t you stop talking in riddles?” cries an anguished Worthington at one point, and we can’t help but feel his misery while he waits for those Avatar sequels to get going), make up the bulk of the conversation in the film.
Mack also engages in activities like digging up a garden with Sarayu, debating with the embodiment of God’s wisdom (Alice Braga) and, in one unintentionally comic sequence, walking across a lake with Jesus. Round and round they go, and by the time the film reaches a darker sequence toward the end that is supposed to make us feel the full weight of Mack’s grief, the viewer is so disengaged that instead you will feel nothing.
At least this viewer didn’t; the problem with most faith-based films is that they are – pun intended this time – always preaching to the converted, and the story must ultimately fit the agenda. It’s a foregone conclusion that Mack will rekindle his faith – it’s no spoiler to tell you that – and as a result, The Shack has no real tension or conflict throughout its hefty 132 minutes. The entire story is so pre-ordained to fit the expectations of an audience of true believers that it locks out pretty much everyone else and quickly ossifies into a sermon instead of a real movie.
Some other aspects of the book, such as Papa playing a role in Mack’s personal investigation into the disappearance of his daughter, are altered from the novel. Luckily, we are spared those even more incredulous moments in the screen version of The Shack; too bad we weren’t spared the rest of this sanctimonious and stilted film too.
The Shack is out in theaters Friday, March 3.