Light spoilers ahead. I needed them to make my points. Apologies
One troubled and haunted man seeks clarity after an unpredictable accident leaves him with memories of The Shack. The film is Based on the best-selling novel by William Paul Young, which was originally published out of a garage by Brad Cummings and Wayne Jacobsen. After his young daughter is murdered during a family camping trip, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) spirals into a deep depression causing him to question his innermost beliefs. Facing a crisis of faith, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to the shack where the crime occurred, deep in the Oregon wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack goes there and encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer). Through this meeting, Mack finds important truths and lessons that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever. The Shack is directed by Stuart Hazeldine, and is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving violence.
I’ve had my trysts with religious films over the course of six years as a film critic, and I have to say that ‘The Shack’ is among the worst in religious offerings. That’s not to say that I am against religious films as a whole, it’s just that more times than not they over-complicate unnecessary steps to tell an intriguingly gripping story. Good religious films like ‘Captive’ or ‘Son of God’ don’t feel it necessary to use two plus hours to give a sermon that is sure to test your moral fabric, as well as your patience along the way. ‘The Shack’ takes preaching to a completely new level. This is 127 minutes of a story that definitely could and should have been half of that. At face value, the idea of losing a child, complete with mysterious circumstances and the progression of grief is certainly more than enough fire power to hook me into any story. The problem mainly comes with the fact that the actual shack side of this story, including the haunting disappearance, becomes less and less important to the direction of the picture, the further it goes on. Choosing instead to halt the progression of a narrative to stop and show the astonishing power of Christ. Something that those who believe in already know, and would much rather figure out details to this mystery of the little girl.
That mystery is rarely ever addressed, nor answered. There is a conclusion towards the end of the film that at least offers a conclusion to her situation, but does very little in answering the who or the what. If the book is like this, it is some truly terrible structure that does very little to smooth the pacing of this overcrowded story. In addition to this, it turns out in the opening minutes that we find out Mack is a murderer himself. Surely this will be deemed wrong in the eyes of God, and he too will seek judgement, right? WRONG. The only time that this is brought up again is during a brief scene in which said murder is treated like he stole a Snickers bar from the local grocery store. That’s a huge problem within this film; it deems what is appropriate and what is not to properly tell its story. Mack is forced to deal and forgive this dark shadow that is plaguing his life, never once having to deal with his own personal demons that had more than a few reasons for his lack of faith at the start of the film. Of course anything is easy to forget when you have a film that overstays its welcome at every turn.
To say that there is so much that isn’t necessary to the structure of this plot, is a gross understatement. This film feels like a director’s cut that the director decided to keep for all of the cutting edge green-screen work that he could show off to the occasional moviegoer. Once Mack ventures into the forest, we never again see his friends or family until the very end of the picture. That lack of dual storytelling diminishes any kind of possibility for crafty narration that goes above and beyond. At least Hazeldine’s backgrounds are beautiful, despite the fact that most of them aren’t physically there. The third act is suffocating, slugging us through a variety of possible conclusion points that would’ve been more than enough to properly finish this narrative. But no, the movie instead deems it necessary to include what I can only imagine is every single aspect of the literary counterpart. That’s the problem with most book-to-film adaptations; you either cut too much, or include too much. ‘The Shack’ never finds that comfortable balance between those two doomed directions, and tap dances through some of the worst pacing that I have dealt with in 2017 so far.
Leaps and bounds above the rest of the offensive material, was the idea that grief can be easily forgiven and appropriately timed. Everybody’s reactions are different to losing a child or anybody in their lives, so to say for a second that forgiveness is as easy as saying you’re sorry, is a gross exaggeration that is of poor responsibility to the youth who will watch this film. Forgiveness is more about feeling that anger and regret slipping away. Anything is easy to say, but you have to feel it out when the time is right, and nothing about Mack’s journey from start to finish in this movie ever feels warranted with where he ends up. Especially considering he, nor the audience, ever find out the complete details of his daughter’s last days. Leaving out details like that will play a HUGE part into the battle with forgiveness and what kind of demons that this character chooses to hold onto. The film tells us that man or woman was never supposed to play God with someone else’s life, and that they are to blame for the bad things that happen in the world. That might be true for that particular instance, but what about AIDS? or cancer? or any other life-threatening illness that plagues the world? Is that blamed on humans too? I guess none of this matters when you manipulate and crafts a script into any kind of way that your audience will eat up. Ultimately, this whole thing feels like it was written by a five-year-old who watched one too many Hallmark Channel movies about the power of God. Believing is cool, force-feeding is irresponsible for the other side of the audience who come to just watch a good movie play out. A wish that goes unfulfilled quite often.
As for performances, there’s plenty of positives and negatives to dissect. Octavia Spencer can practically play this role in her sleep by now. The idea of playing a savior is certainly nothing new to Spencer, and her soft, admirable personality shines its way through every delightful bit that rarely sprung up for me. Tim Mcgraw is also decent, despite not being in the film for too long. Mcgraw feels like the kind of friend to Mack that he desperately needs during this trying time, and I was saddened to learn that his material is as short as my patience was for this film to get going. Sam Worthington continues to be the previous decade’s Jai Courtney for under-performing each opportunity. Sam’s emotional register feels cold, and often times needs musical accompaniment to reach into the hearts and tears of the audience, lessening his quality for capturing those gut-wrenching moments. On more than one occasion, Worthington’s Australian accent cracks the surface and totally took me out of each moment I was invested. Worthington isn’t alone however, as one of Spencer’s henchwomen was truly out of place for her casting in this particular film. This actress (Sumire Matsubara) is in her first movie, and it clearly shows, as her delivery left quite a few uncomfortable scenes when clashing with Worthington’s character. There’s a lot of awkward sexual chemistry between them that is unwarranted, and Sumire plays all of her line reads far too softly in distinguishing herself from the other two spirits. The scenes involving her beg for spoofing, and i fear another Marlon Wayans comedy will be glad to take the reigns. Another reason ‘The Shack’ will inevitably make me sour.
‘The Shack’ overclouds itself with unnecessary exposition and subliminal religious undertones, over-thinking an interesting enough mystery genre film and replacing it with sermon verses. My resentment over two hours of Hallmark Channel lessons and Bollywood style pacing, left me dispirited over the death of the movie I was hoping I would get. This one is preaching entirely to the choir of ears who will undoubtedly invest in those simplistic Sunday school lessons that will otherwise be a collection of yawns and groans from everybody else.