The Shack (2017) Summit/Drama RT: 132 minutes Rated PG-13 (thematic material including some violence) Director: Stuart Hazeldine Screenplay: John Fusco Music: Aaron Zigman Cinematography: Declan Quinn Release date: March 3, 2017 (US) Cast: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire, Radha Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Amelie Eve, Megan Carpenter, Gage Munroe, Derek Hamilton, Carson Reaume, Ryan Robbins, Jordyn Ashley Olson, Laura MacKillop, Emily Holmes.
Who knew that the Almighty is a Neil Young fan? It’s one of the many traits the writer of The Shack gives to God in order to make Him more relatable. Based on the best-selling 2007 book by William P. Young, it deals with a man who loses his faith after a terrible tragedy. He’s so broken that God feels it necessary to directly intervene and assure him that everything will be okay as long as he trusts in Him. It’s a simple message yet so powerful.
Mack Phillips (Worthington, Avatar) grew up with a drunken father that regularly abused him and his mother. At some point, he may have killed his dad but the movie is never clear on that point. In any event, he grows into a good man who loves his wife Nan (Mitchell, Silent Hill) and three children- Kate (Carpenter, Mama), Josh (Munroe) and youngest daughter Missy (Eve). While his wife is a devoutly religious type who refers to God as “Papa”, Mack goes to church every Sunday but just doesn’t feel it. Then his whole life comes crashing down. Missy disappears during a camping trip. Mack had to take his eyes off her for a few minutes to save his two teens from drowning after their canoe capsizes in the lake. Police and FBI arrive and scour the area. All that’s found is her torn dress and some blood.
Some months later, Mack is a shell of a man. He’s grown distant from his family and best friend Willie (McGraw, The Blind Side). He barely notices how Missy’s death has affected the rest of the family, especially Kate who’s become seriously withdrawn. One day, he receives a mysterious note in his mailbox inviting him to come to the dilapidated shack where Missy’s dress was found. It’s signed Papa. At first, Mack thinks it’s a sick joke. Reluctantly, he decides to accept the invitation. When he gets there, he finds nothing. He goes to leave and spots a figure in the woods. It turns out to be a young man who invites Mack to come to his home to get warm. Suddenly, the snowy woods give way to a lush, sunny paradise.
The man (Alush, An Israeli Love Story) takes him to a beautiful where he’s greeted warmly by Papa/God in the guise of a kindly black woman (Spencer, Hidden Figures). There’s also a young Asian woman named Sarayu (model Sumire). Mack quickly realizes that his hosts are God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost. He was brought there so Papa and company could help him deal with his grief and anger. They teach him to forgive and not be so quick to judge others based on their deeds. They help him gain closure regarding Missy’s death. Most importantly, they help him get close to his family again and regain his lost faith.
As a critic, my guard is always up. I’ve become more cynical and jaded about movies in general. Yet I still have a soft spot in my heart for movies like The Shack. It’s an unabashed tearjerker about life, death and the Afterlife. It kind of reminds me of 1998’s What Dreams May Come. It’s a gorgeous-looking movie with a lot of bright colors and beautiful scenery. It’s also heavy on emotion. The death of an innocent child is enough to make the toughest tough guy shed a few tears but The Shack ups the sad quotient by showing the main character in the throes of grief. His lack of faith in God makes it all the more difficult to get past. I’m not ashamed to admit I choked up quite a few times. The lady sitting next to me went through a lot of tissues.
I understand why critics don’t like The Shack; it doesn’t mean I agree with them. Yes, it runs a bit long and yes, a lot of the answers to Mack’s big questions are too pat. When he asks Papa why she allows so many bad things to happen, she says evil always finds its way into the world and she can’t stop everything. It’s simplistic to be sure but let me ask you this. Do you really want to see a movie that gets too deep into theological and philosophical issues? It it’s too heavy, it risks losing the audience segment that wants to see an emotionally affecting drama. The Shack is definitely that.
Is The Shack sappy and schmaltzy? You bet it is! That’s why movies like The Shack exist to begin with. That’s one of the things I love about it. It’s also corny and clichéd. It even has a scene of Jesus teaching Mack to walk on water. The acting is pretty good. None of the performances come off as phony or forced. Even Worthington, who I usually find wooden, turns in a convincing performance. Spencer goes a great job as usual.
My only complaint about The Shack is the lack of development when it comes to certain characters and plot elements. I would have liked to see more of the oldest daughter who clearly blames herself for what happened to Missy. Also, I wish the movie was clearer about what happened with Mack’s dad. If he killed him, shouldn’t he confess it to Papa? How has it affected his life? It’s never referred to at all. All we get is a scene where Mack meets the spirit of his father who asks forgiveness for all the abuse he inflicted on him as a boy. At 132 minutes, The Shack is a bit overlong. It drags a bit in parts. Okay, so it’s not perfect. It is quite good though. It’s heartfelt, sincere and faith-affirming. It teaches rather than preaches. It’s a solid drama that should definitely please fans of the book and the after-church crowd.