If you’re a movie critic, you shouldn’t make any preconceptions about a film — not even if the Happy Madison logo appears or a title card saying “A Tyler Perry Film” arises. But when breathy radio personality Delilah comes before the “wonderful” film you’re about to see, singing all its benevolent praises before a single slice of celluloid appears, you have good reason to be skeptical.
Based on the phenomenally bestselling novel, The Shack tells a spiritual story of perseverance against and acceptance towards life’s unspeakable cruelties. It’s told through the perspective of Mack (Sam Worthington), a husband and grieving father, fighting to release months upon years of pain and inner torment through one-on-one interactions with Papa (Octavia Spencer), a.k.a God, Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire), a.k.a. the Holy Spirit, in the titular shack which once housed unfathomable evil. It’s blatantly religious, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. In fact, if anything, The Shack‘s conversational, philosophically-ambiguous approach makes it more universal than other prayer-filled works of cinema. Notably, anything from Pure Flix.
But where beautiful contemporaries, including The Tree of Life, Noah, Life of Pi and Silence, to name a few, used their religious overtones to convey challenging, thematically-dense works of humanist cinema, The Shack is too buckled down to its sermon routes to feel anything more than heavy-handed preaching. The House of the Lord is for lectures. The House of the Cinema is for presenting art. The Shack can most certainly be gorgeous, but it can also be exceedingly overbearing.
Worthington tries his damnedest to carry this evangelical messagefest with humility, commitment and grace. His shabby Midwestern accent isn’t doing him any favors, but he’s not the reason why the film doesn’t really come together. While he’s ultimately a bit miscast as Mack, as I imagine someone like Ewan McGregor or James Marsden would have a better time juggling the versatility required to make this leading role excel, he tries his best and his efforts aren’t misguided. There’s a palpable sincerity to his performance, one that hasn’t always been found in his American roles. There’s a clear effort to challenge himself beyond his apparent limitations. It’s a decent performance, but The Shack is practically demanding excellence from him.
Spencer, however, carries The Shack like the seasoned professional she is with aplomb. Her vulnerable, all-knowing, Neil Young-loving Lord is at once lively and intimate, powerful and very fragile. It’s as good — and sometimes even better — than some of her best performances to date, including those found in The Help and Hidden Figures. If only the film itself lived up to her diligence to the beloved source material written by William P. Young, Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings (and yes, the original book was, indeed, written by three different authors).
Director Stuart Hazeldine (2009’s underrated Exam) at least makes The Shack‘s journey to the big screen cinematic. There’s some truly stunning cinematography, provided by DP Declan Quinn (In America), that can honestly take your breath away, and that’s not something I can say for, say, God’s Not Dead 1 or 2. If only the plotting itself didn’t play like an ABC movie of the week from 2005. If it weren’t for some incredibly lavish shots, you wouldn’t be surprised to find Hazeldine’s latest film airing after a re-broadcasting of The Five People You Meet in Heaven on the broadcast station.
More than that, however, The Shack often calls to mind December’s earnest, if deeply misguided, Collateral Beauty, which isn’t necessarily the comparison one wants to earn. While The Shack‘s predictable final twists aren’t quite as baffling or egregious as the ones packed inside that woeful affair, they’re similarly not quite as shocking as the film desperately wants them to be for the verklempt audience. They play as dominos pieces falling towards the expected message of open-heartedness, acceptance and benevolence that nearly all these movies come to represent.
It’s worth nothing that The Shack also features/prominently wastes the supporting talents of Radha Mitchell, Tim McGraw (who, all things considered, is becoming a decent-enough character actor), Alice Barga and Graham Greene. They’re all individuality given little moments to shine (minus Mitchell, who seriously can’t catch a break these days), but none of them shine as bright as they damn well should. Barga and Greene each get a nice monologue, but they deserve better. The Shack may extend to an unruly 132 minutes, but it sure knows how to shorten out on its talent.
In the scheme of recent religious movies, The Shack lands somewhere down the middle. It’s too thoughtful, inquisitive and visually lavish to bottom-feed to the depths of Pure Flix’s recent productions, yet it’s not quite sophisticated, deep or searching enough to rise to the high standards of Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky. As such, The Shack isn’t quite as bad as expectations might lead you to believe, but it’s not divine, either.
The Shack isn't necessarily a hellish ordeal, but it's no godsend either.