One of the most dreary and dreadful films to come out of this new wave of Christian oriented cinema, the baffling “feel good” fantasy The Shack – based on a bestseller from Canadian novelist William P. Young – tells viewers that there’s no tragedy that can’t be overcome by retreating away from everyone you love, never opening up to them, refusing therapy or medical treatment as a form of help, and confiding in the Lord when in reality you might have a serious head injury. In short, it’s dangerous, ill informed bollocks and as morally deep and insightful as an insurance ad on a truck stop diner placemat. But The Shack is so uniquely awful in its own made-for-the-Hallmark-Channel fashion that it almost becomes admirably terrible. In no way to do I condone the message behind The Shack, but I can say that it at least lives up to the courage of its misbegotten, contradictory convictions with heavy-handed aplomb.
Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) overcame a harsh childhood to become a loving husband and father of three. He was raised a Christian, but he’s not as much of a believer as his wife (Radha Mitchell). What little faith he had evaporated following an unspeakable tragedy that takes the life of one of his kids. With his marriage on the rocks and his remaining kids slowly drifting further away from him, Mack receives a strange letter in the mail bearing no postmark and reportedly written by “Papa,” or what his wife calls God. The letter tells Mack to travel to the titular hovel – the site of his child’s grisly demise at the hands of a serial killer (seriously) – to have a sit down meeting because they haven’t talked in a while. This could be the work of a madman who was never caught, but the grief stricken Mack thinks this is a better way to confront his demons (or possibly give him a chance to kill himself) than going to therapy or talking to anyone. When he gets to the snowy cabin, he’s magically whisked away to a bright and sunny fantasy world where he’s able to converse with embodiment’s of God (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara). Together, these entities work to try and bring Mack to a place of hope, forgiveness, and resolution.
I don’t really know where to begin when talking about The Shack, but the most basic reason why it fails not only as a regular film, but as a religious film is because it just makes up whatever it wants to as it goes along and continually betrays everything it sets up along the way to get cheap pops from an audience, presumably made up of people who already believe and don’t need to be told twice about the kindness and everlasting grace of Jesus Christ. It’s not so much a plea to remember the teachings of The Bible or to find comfort in the words contained within, but an admonishment to remain Christian at all costs, no matter how badly one hurts inside. A film could be, and has been made out of that, but The Shack is so contrived and hokey, bogged down in the most basic of inspirational platitudes, that it has to perform backflips to complete the task.
Take, for example, Mack’s upbringing; it’s shown early on that young Mack literally poisoned and murdered his alcoholic father to keep him from abusing his mother. Nothing ever comes of this except towards the end when the holy ghosts force Mack to forgive his dead father for being a jerk. They totally forget to judge Mack for literally murdering someone – justified or not – and force HIM to forgive the person HE murdered. This also doesn’t get brought up despite the fact that Mack’s current existential crisis revolves around a child being placed in peril and brutally slaughtered. Everything The Shack tries to say about forgiveness, letting go, and going with God is flagrantly hypocritical; empty sentiments designed to forward a way of thinking without ever once getting to the meat of what any of it means. “Believe everything we say, and if you don’t believe it, that’s on you.” That’s the entire point of the movie besides reminding like-minded viewers that therapy is a joke compared to sitting around and reading a book, so in every way it’s a perfect failure at everything it attempts.
The script, courtesy of screenwriters John Fusco (Young Guns), Destin Daniel Cretton (falling VERY far from the excellent Short Term 12), and Andrew Lanham never settles on a consistent tone, droning on well past the two hour mark and subsisting almost entirely on scenes where an unenviable Worthington has to banter with his co-stars about religious ideology as told to the audience via a wonky viewpoint. These discussions about faith and the fickle nature of why God allows bad things to happen to good people are constantly cyclical and never lead anywhere. Let’s set aside that any time a film or a work makes God a literal character, anything that comes out of the character’s mouth will become didactic and sometimes silly to think about. To script such ethereal characters with dialogue that many Sunday churchgoers would find empty, hollow, and unhelpful feels like a cheat, and to continue down such an obvious road (building to an obvious twist) for such an unconscionably long period of time feels like you’re being held hostage in order to pay witness to someone’s feel good mental collapse.
Director Stuart Hazeldine is almost a non-entity here. There’s no discernible style to The Shack, and he simply films the script, tells people where to stand, and makes sure the camera operators capture every grin or pained expression on his character’s faces. It’s a film that might as well have been made from a computer program from a script that was cobbled together out of empty sentiments straight from a Facebook group called “Bible Studies for Beginners.” I’d say it was directed by some unseen force, but I doubt God or any other deity would want to take credit for this, so they slapped Hazeldine’s name on it instead.
Spencer smiles and nods her way through her part as an aloof, borderline racist interpretation of God (one that isn’t helped when indigenous actor Graham Greene takes over the role for a brief time when God decides Mack “needs a father”), but Alush makes a pretty decent Jesus. Worthington is at his best here expressing pain and anguish, but a blank slate in every other scene, even when his character is supposedly expressing joy. They can’t elevate this material, and in fairness to them, why should they even try?
At one point The Shack insists that it’s a film that’s against judgement, but then headed into the climax there’s a scene where Mack – acting just as confused as the audience – meets the embodiment of Wisdom, and he’s told that he’s there to be judged. It’s both maddening and not remotely worth thinking about the contradicting nature of The Shack and it’s messy, potentially hazardous ideology. It’s probably just best to forget this thing exists in the first place.