Sam Worthington has encountered aliens, robots and the Greek pantheon across his acting career. In this faith-based drama, Worthington comes face to face with God Himself – or Herself, as the case may be.
Worthington plays Mack Phillips, who has endured a difficult childhood with an abusive father (Derek Hamilton). Mack is happily married to Nan (Mitchell), his wife of 18 years, and they have three children together: Josh (Munroe), Kate (Charpentier) and Missy (Eve). A family tragedy leaves Mack in shambles, questioning the existence of God. When Mack receives a letter inviting him to ‘the Shack’ signed ‘Papa’, Missy’s nickname for God, his first instinct is that it’s a cruel joke. In a moment of desperation, Mack decides to investigate, on the off chance that God really might be waiting for him in the woods. He is greeted by Papa (Spencer), Jesus (Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire). While Mack is unable to believe the bizarre circumstances, at first, he eventually allows his soul to be healed as he spends time with the physical manifestations of the Holy Trinity.
The Shack is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young. The self-published book eventually became a best-seller, resulting in lawsuits over royalties and authorship. It’s as funny as it is sad that behind this inspirational novel which has been credited with “changing lives” is a story of greed and animosity. While The Shack is beloved by millions around the world, it has also drawn the criticism of several theologians, pastors and priests, who claim that it misrepresents God as described in the Bible and that it echoes New Age teachings.
Faith-based movies have gotten a bad rap, criticised for everything from poor production values to the use of strawman arguments. The Shack tackles topics that are darker and less comfortable than one would find in your average Christian movie. It makes a valiant attempt at addressing hurt and anger at God. At its heart is the Problem of Evil, the conundrum of how to reconcile a benevolent God with the existence of evil. This has been mulled over by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the answers presented in The Shack aren’t exactly convincing. There’s plenty of blatant emotional manipulation, and after a downer of a first act, things get syrupy fast.
“The secrets we keep have a way of clawing themselves to the surface,” narrator Tim McGraw intones. Judging by Worthington’s performance, Australian accents are a lot like secrets that way. There are many dramatic moments in which Mack tearfully pleads with the members of the Trinity to explain why God allows such terrible things to happen in the world. Worthington isn’t phoning it in, but there are times when it seems like he might’ve run off in-between takes to make panicked phone calls to James Cameron, demanding why Avatar 2 isn’t ready for production yet.
The film’s portrayal of God the Father as a black woman has raised several eyebrows. Apparently, this is a form with which Mack will be comfortable, which is why God chooses this guise to appear to Mack in. While Spencer’s performance brims with good-natured warmth, this is an example of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope through and through, the Southern mammy housekeeper.
We acknowledge that this is the first English-language film to actually cast an Israeli actor as Jesus, and depicting the Holy Spirit as an ethereal Japanese woman is, if nothing else, interesting. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves, also shows up, as does Brazilian actress Alice Braga. It’s kind of a step in the right direction that the film has as diverse a cast as it does, but it has the unfortunate implication of people from other ethnicities guiding the white guy to spiritual enlightenment. This is exactly what Doctor Strange, which cast a white woman in a traditionally Asian, male role, was bending over backwards to avoid, creating a new set of controversies in the process.
Many other works of fiction have attempted to humanise God, to render a figure often seen as distant and unapproachable more relatable. The Shack’s approach to this is one of the reasons why it’s been decried as heretical by certain scholars. There are viewers who might find comfort in seeing the Trinity being relaxed, friendly, patient and caring. However, there are others who might consider this too Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque, its blend of sentimentality and magical realism altogether too cloying. Other reviewers have mocked The Shack as coming off like a special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show – at one point, Winfrey herself was linked to the Papa role in this film. There are many who have found the novel to be therapeutic, and a psychiatrist and family therapist named Brad Robison has even written a study guide after using the book in his practice. It didn’t have this effect on us.
The use of a fantastical parable to address feelings of loss, bereavement and confusion is a fine starting point, and one that could have been the basis for a poetic, poignant film. Instead, The Shack is on-the-nose and clumsy. It’s different enough from the traditional idea of a ‘Christian movie’, but is content with peddling platitudes rather than provoking thought.
Summary: A mawkish faith-based parable, The Shack trades in emotionally manipulative melodrama and faux-sage truisms.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars