It may seem ludicrous to some, but every once in awhile there comes a film where a leading actor we thought previously incapable of turning in a good performance surprises everybody and delivers something worth committing to. That actor is Sam Worthington in The Shack. While some who go to see the film this weekend may be a tad surprised to be watching a faith based narrative due to a vague marketing campaign, those willing to listen, and maybe even engage a little with the subject matter and performances, will find a film that contextualizes some of the more hopeful aspects of Christian theology.
For those that are not aware, The Shack is based upon the surprise Christian bestseller of the same name by Canadian William P. Young (a book I read nearly a decade ago that had a profound effect on my life spiritually and for that reason I went into my screening with optimism). Seeing the film though, it is amazing some of the plot points that you forget were in the novel after not engaging with the narrative for some time.
Worthington plays Mack, a husband and father stuck in his “great sadness” after the disappearance and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy. One afternoon, while snowplowing his driveway, Mack finds an unaddressed note in his mailbox inviting him back to the very shack that Missy was killed in. Looking around for anyone who may have left the note, Mack slips on some ice and hits his head, allowing the audience to flashback to the events leading up to Missy’s disappearance. Upon waking up, Mack makes the decision to answer the invitation and what he finds at the Shack is an encounter he never thought possible.
The early flashback sequence gives us a lengthy look at the events leading up to her disappearance as well as the early childhood struggles of Mack who was faced with an abusive and alcoholic father. These early sequences-despite adding some needed context- simply take too long, growing repetitive. It’s made up for a touch by Worthington’s confidence on screen here, convincing me of the love his character had for his family before Missy’s disappearance, and of the despair he suffered long after her murder. Each of his children in this film have limited roles, but the actors playing them have much more energy for their characters when they share the screen with Worthington, particularly young Amélie Eve as Missy.
The best part of the film comes from Octavia Spencer’s Papa, Mack’s family’s name for God. Her calming screen presence gives a softness to the role of God that fits well with the film’s overall themes of loss, sadness, and ultimately healing. Spencer has recently become one of the best scenery chewing actors of our time, and that continues here. Every scene she is in imbues the film with life.
The biggest struggle that the film has is how to work through those previously mentioned themes while also presenting them under a mostly neutral Christian lens. A lot of Mack’s emotional struggles seem to just disappear as he continues in conversations with Spencer’s Papa, Avraham Aviv Alush’s Jesus, and Sumire Matsubara’s Sarayu or Holy Spirit. And while that technically makes sense if Mack is indeed in the presence of God, his advancements in dealing with his emotional pain do not feel entirely earned because each are casually put forth and then healed almost in an instant.
The Shack is a mostly enjoyable movie for those that are willing to listen to or engage with a spiritual, and specifically Christian, narrative. Even for those that do not share in the Christian faith may find some simple points of wisdom that everyone should consider, particularly in our current global climate of emboldening intolerance. In this case, religion shouldn’t be a deciding factor on whether or not you give this film a chance.