February 2021

The Shack (2017)

DIRECTOR: Stuart Hazeldine

CAST: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara, Graham Greene


If you’ve a hankering for a full-length, two hour plus version of a Touched By An Angel episode (or you’re a fan of William P. Young’s 2007 Christian-themed novel of the same name), The Shack might warm your cockles. Considering Young’s book sold upwards of ten million copies, it might make back its costs and then some—-how expensive can a movie this TV-ish really be?—but for anyone else, it’s a “Lifetime Original Movie” handing down wannabe profundities in facilely feel good ways, and not worth watching unless you’re a Sunday School teacher hard up for something to occupy your pupils for a couple hours.

As explained by Tim McGraw’s tritely folksy narration, Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington) overcame a rough childhood with an alcoholic and abusive father (Derek Hamilton) to forge a mostly happy family with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and three children (Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve). But when tragedy strikes on a camping trip, Mack falls into a downward spiral (which the movie ever heavy-handedly dubs “The Great Sadness”). One day, mysterious events conspire to land him at a seemingly deserted shack in the middle of the winter woodlands which suddenly unveils a lush tropical environment and three mysterious strangers, a woman called “Papa” (Octavia Spencer), which oh-so-subtly also happens to be Mrs. Phillips’ nickname for God, a Middle Eastern carpenter (Avraham Aviv Alush)—no points for guessing his name—-and an Asian woman called Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). In tritely heartwarming fashion of the kind you’d find in a Touched By An Angel episode, Mack will learn to open up and find closure with the gentle prodding of the trinity (oops, spoiler warning!).

That this is a Christian Movie® of the most treacly and heavy-handed sort is clear almost from the get-go, when Tim McGraw takes pains to tell us that Mack’s personal relationship with God isn’t as strong as the wifey’s (as McGraw drawls in one of the movie’s many wannabe profound lines, it’s “wide”, while hers is “deep”). It’s also not much of a spoiler that Mack spends a few days with God in a shack in the woods, because Sam Worthington helpfully tells us this in the opening moments. Once we get past the opening scenes of child abuse—Mack’s father is a hypocritical church elder who abuses his family behind closed doors—and the offscreen kidnapping/murder of a small child that seems a little jarringly gruesome (even if only implied and not shown) for this kind of movie, nothing much else happens besides a bunch of banal conversations at The Shack (speaking of weirdly inappropriate things for such an otherwise Sunday School-esque movie, the opening also implies young Mack poisoned his father, then never addresses this again, leaving this dangling plot point odd to say the least). While depicting God has always been a challenge for filmmakers, couldn’t they have found something better to put in His—-their?—mouth (mouths?) than a bunch of New Agey banalities the movie expects us—-and Mack—-to regard as eye-opening spiritual profundities? There was no reason for a movie this simplistic in which so little happens to run over two hours, but indeed it does. If you’re the right audience for this sort of thing, you might be enthralled. If not, you’ll be doing plenty of eye-rolling before the movie finally drags itself across the finish line. Lord have mercy, indeed.

It doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in a movie’s quality level when its principal cast includes Sam Worthington (who was once the would-be Next Big Thing between Terminator: Salvation and Avatar, but has since fallen into direct-to-DVD dreck and stuff like this) and Tim McGraw (!). Worthington is what he’s been in virtually every other movie in which he has appeared: adequate. As the blandly earnest Mack, he’s neither particularly good nor bad, he’s just there saying lines and occupying space. McGraw doesn’t stretch any acting muscles by drawling the trite narration and also popping up in a small undemanding role as Mack’s buddy. Octavia Spencer, the one person in the cast whom you might think is a little above this sort of thing, exudes warmth and kindness as well as anyone, but gets nothing to besides delivering a lot of feel good banal spiritual/life lessons. No Oscar nomination incoming for this role, even if it is God.

If this kind of movie appeals to you, you probably know who you are. For anyone else, The Shack is an exercise in tedium, and even some Christians have hit it with backlash, both for its perceived questionable theocracy and for the facile and simplistic ways it hands it down (“religious movie” shouldn’t have to be synonymous with either “preachy” or “amateurish”, but too often it is). For most viewers though, The Shack is too trite and meaningless to warrant any controversy. Spending two hours in this shack isn’t a magical experience, it’s a chore.

* 1/2