The most cringe-worthy moment in “The Shack” comes in the second half of the film, as the protagonist enters a dark cave, sees a woman in a long, flowing dress and wearing a crown and asks her who she is. “I am wisdom,” she replies, and a collective, audience-wide eye-roll ensues.
Unfortunately, this is just one of the many tropes the film employs to send its message. Despite its admirable intentions as a faith-based family story, “The Shack,” directed by British filmmaker Stuart Hazeldine, comes off as self-indulgent, clichéd and tiresome. Viewers’ reactions to the movie, based on the 2007 bestselling Christian novel by William P. Young, will be directly tied to how they feel about its religious themes, as it is virtually impossible to see it as something other than what it is: a movie that advocates for faith as the essential basis of healing.
The film tells the story of Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington), a man who, following his young daughter’s tragic abduction and murder on a family vacation, falls into a dark period of depression, loneliness and self-blame. After a mysterious letter from one so-called “Papa” asks him to revisit the shack where his daughter was killed, Mack anxiously sets out to confront the strange invitation. There, he meets a calm and collected “Papa,” or God (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and Sarayu, the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara), who promise a spiritual healing process. The rest of the film explores Mack’s guidance by the three divine figures in this magical shack, where he is forced to tackle his inner demons and finally come to terms with his grief.
Despite its worn-out tropes, “The Shack” is not a terrible movie. It’s clear that the film is simply attempting to check off boxes on a list of Christian drama essentials, right down to Tim McGraw’s voiceover and cameo. There are elements throughout the film that are undeniably admirable. Octavia Spencer’s presence elevates any and every film she appears in, and “The Shack” is no exception. Spencer is a scene-stealer, and the portions of the film that include her are easily the most enjoyable. Whether she’s listening to music through her headphones or wearing massive shades, Spencer’s contemporary, accessible portrayal of God brings to life the most interesting character in the film.
Many scenes in the film are genuinely moving: Mack’s initial realization of his daughter’s death is devastating, and the scene where he breaks down, cradled in his wife’s arms, is easily the movie’s most affecting. Worthington’s performance is sincere, but after a full two hours of witnessing his sorrowful expressions, audience members will likely feel as if they never saw more to his character. It’s especially hard to buy into Mack’s struggle when it’s impossible to overlook Worthington’s inconsistent and poor “Midwestern” accent, which is mostly just a muddled combination of New Yorker, Southerner and, way too often, Worthington’s natural Australian. Maybe it’s for the best that he mumbles through most of the movie, anyway.
Moreover, the idea of rebuilding broken relationships with people in our lives is attractive in theory, but the implication that Mack must forgive his abusive father and his daughter’s kidnapper and murderer in order to move on with his own life is both unsettling and problematic. Healing from trauma shouldn’t be reliant on external forgiveness, and the film’s promotion of this reliance will likely not sit well with non-Christian viewers. It’s not necessary to find fault with its theology to criticize such thematic elements.
At the end of the day, “The Shack” is perfectly average fare. It’s definitely not trying to be a stand-alone masterpiece, but as a book-to-movie adaptation, it doesn’t translate well onto the big screen. Its constant attempts at philosophical profoundness come off as contrived rather than thought-provoking. As a Biblical allegory, it may satisfy its target audience, but it will alienate others who don’t already believe in its core messages.
If you’re looking for a truly authentic exploration of grief after the loss of a loved one, maybe just stream “Manchester by the Sea” instead.
“The Shack” is currently playing at Regal Jack London Stadium 9.