The Shack and all the images you see in this review are owned by Summit Entertainment
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
Geez, first we had Jennifer Gardner do one of these last year, and now ACADEMY AWARD WINNER OCTAVIA SPENCER? And the thing is, I had no idea what this was about until I walked into the movie! I thought it was Nick Sparks fluff piece or something like that, but no! Alright, so I didn’t have the best attitude once they movie let me know what it was about within the first five minutes, but it’s not like there aren’t ANY religious films I like! Certainly Noah counts, right? Anyway, does The Shack manage to rise above its contemporaries and be a thoughtful examination on religion and spirituality’s role in working through grief, or is it just like every other mediocre or downright offensive Christian film we’ve gotten since Pure Flix managed to make a few bucks at the box office? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with the wholesome Phillips family led by the father Mack (Sam Worthington) who one day decides to take the kids on a camping trip which couldn’t POSSIBLY go awry! Oh wait. The youngest of the group Missy (Amelie Eve) goes missing and presumed dead. I THINK the body is found in the titular shack in the mountains, but the movie is a bit coy on that detail; presumably so they can avoid showing a dead body in this wholesome family film. Anyway, the tragedy shatters the whole family including their son Josh (Gage Munroe) and their other daughter Kate (Megan Charpentier), but Mack is taking the brunt of the guilt; leaving the mother Nan (Radha Mitchell) to pick up the slack while he’s moping around the house. One day however, he gets a mysterious letter telling him to meet God in the shack where Missy’s body was found which sounds suspiciously like the opening to Silent Hill 2, but unfortunately we’re not in for that kind of movie. Instead, he steals his best friend’s truck (played by Tim McGraw) and drives up there thinking that he’ll find the killer waiting for him. No such luck so Mack has a near suicidal fit of rage and fury but is saved from blowing his brains out by some dude who JUST SO HAPPENED to be walking by at just that moment. Not only that, but the dude seems to know Mack and invites him to join his family in another nearby cabin. What’s odd though is that the weather instantly changes from the dead of winter to a bright spring day, and on top of that, the dude’s father is played by Octavia Spencer. So why would this guy played by Aviv Alush call this woman The Father? And who is this mysterious third person there played by Sumire Matsubara? Wait a minute… meet God in the cabin… there are three of them… oh. Okay, so we’ve got The Father (Spencer), The Son (Alush), and the Holy Spirit (Matsubara) basically pulling a Christmas Carol on this dude to get him over the death of his daughter by… sort of answering his very obvious and leading questions about the nature of God in a world that isn’t perfect. Uh huh. So then… does Mack manage to find a reason to live after spending a few days with these three charming fellows? What insights do they have that can apply to YOUR lives as well as his? Is there a book you can buy to go along with the movie that will shed ADDITIONAL insights and unlock the secret to true happiness!?
Why is it so hard for these modern day religious films to be any good? Is the audience for this kind of stuff really so self-serving that the only thing they’ll accept is something that vindicates their beliefs rather than present them in even a slightly challenging context? You’re probably not surprised to learn that I didn’t care for this movie all that much, and while I’ll concede that it’s leagues better than the dreck from Pure Flix or the Kendrick Brothers, it doesn’t hold a candle to ACTUAL movies about the topics this is trying to preach about. It’s Hollywood cynically jumping on a trend; smart enough to avoid the bigotry and misogyny from the legitimately devote studios (though you could argue that those values are antithetical to TRUE Christian beliefs) while still feeding the undiscerning masses with feel good Pablum and empty spirituality. It’s the cinematic equivalent of reading a greeting card. Maybe a NICE greeting card that pops out and plays a little tune, but it has no meaning or value in and of itself. At least with a greeting card though, you’re usually getting it from someone you actually like. I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling the love from Summit Entertainment right now.
The movie suffers from THE PROBLEM. You know THE PROBLEM, right? The one that is endemic to this new wave of Faith Based Cinema that makes the majority of them an interminable slog for anyone not in the choir that it’s preaching to? THE PROBLEM is that these Faith Based Movies aren’t actually movies; rather, they are avenues by which to spread their message. Now that’s not to say that movies with an explicit political or philosophical leaning can’t be GOOD. Hell, my favorite movie last year was The Purge: Election Year which is a politically charged just from the title! The difference is in what the movie has to offer outside of forwarding its agenda and how it chooses to get their message across. It’s a shame that the guy who directed Exam from a few years back (a decent enough bottle film) was the director on this as the film is competently shot and he does a fine job filming a lot of the scenes, but the content itself is just so flimsy. It’s just lecture after lecture after lecture without any real back and forth between the characters that might have added some dimensionality and weight to the ideas being brought up. Our supposedly depressed and suicidal lead who has abandoned all sense of hope after the death of his daughter is absolutely willing to take everything the spirits say at face value and it never feels like he’s reached the depths of despair someone would need to in order to really get past something like this. I hate to say it, but as problematic as Collateral Beauty is, it at least had a magnetic main star that could ACTUALLY emote and was provided a script where he could react in believable ways. THIS IS WHY YOU DON’T GET SAM WORTHINGTON TO BE IN YOUR MOVIES! It’s also why you don’t PRETEND you’re writing about a two sided conversation when you have a clear bias, but let’s tackle one problem at a time.
Alright, so to be fair I AM a curmudgeon who is easily put off by religious messages; especially ones wrapped up in such a heavy context yet presented with an intolerable amount of saccharine sweetness. Let’s try and temper my indignation with some examples of characters similar to the lead of this film that are done better to prove how COMPLETELY unbiased I am! The two that spring to mind are Clay Puppington form Moral Orel and Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me. Now with Clay, we have sort of the opposite of Mack in that he’s quite devote to his religion (or at least the surface level interpretation that he lives by) but they’re both carrying around a deep and unyielding pain that’s poisoning them from the inside. The thing about Mack though is that he’s so… stoic I guess in his grief that we never really get inside of his head and can only project emotions onto him. The only problem he has in his life, while it may not be something EVERYONE can relate to (death of a child) is still something we can easily understand and use that to fill in the blanks for the character. Contrast that to Clay whose deep psychological issues are a mish mash of male entitlement, self-loathing, an oedipal complex, and straight up alcoholism, but the show takes GREAT pains (especially in the third season) to bring all that to the surface and present it in a unique and empathetic (if not entirely sympathetic) way. Now to be fair to this movie, they DO try to do something like that by having Mack’s childhood be a source of trauma for him that he doesn’t like to think about, but the resolution for that in this movie is so fucking anti-climactic and cheesy that it only goes to further the point that isn’t ABOUT Mack in any meaningful way and he’s just here to be a vessel for these sermons.
Now if you want a more DIRECT comparison… well we could probably go a bit longer talking about Will Smith in Collateral Beauty, but let’s mix it up a bit and instead talk about Tommy Gavin from Rescue Me. In the second season, Tommy’s son dies tragically in a car accident, and this is on top of everything else that’s gone wrong in his life, so he starts to make poor decisions (again) and it all culminates in a plot to kill the drunken bastard who hit his son. Not to spoil too much, but while he ISN’T the one who will do the deed, he does have the power to stop it and in the final moments he has to do so, his guilt manifests as a conversation with Jesus (something that happens with a degree of regularity in the show, but this interaction in particular is pertinent to this discussion). What makes this ONE scene that is a grand total of two minutes more powerful than this entire movie is what I was saying before. You can FEEL the seething rage coming off of Tommy as Jesus gives him the same Pablum he’s heard his entire life growing up as a good catholic boy and he’s fucking done with it… and yet the guilt is just as apparent. The deep sadness that is just under the surface of all that hate is the kind of depth of character and emotion that this movie is lacking so much of, and while this is probably more of a personal taste thing, I find it MUCH more fulfilling that this is clearly shown to be all in Tommy’s head rather than the possible magical realism at play in this movie.
There’s really not much more to say about this movie. Take away any of my feelings about what these characters are ACTUALLY saying, how the message is presented to the audience, and the completely bland cipher of a main character, and all your left with is a competently made movie with some okay performances and a bloated run time. Like I said; this isn’t some monstrosity conjured from the pits of hell like a Pure Flix movie, but it is incredibly preachy and glacially paced. If you want a movie like this that is at least INTERESTING to some extent, at least in how bad it is, stick with Collateral Beauty. This film? Yeah, just toss it in with all the other forgotten snooze fests of this genre and leave them to the idiots like me to actually see these things just to let you know how lousy they are. Wait; tell me again why I’m doing this to myself!?