Paved with good intentions

Tim McGraw in The Shack.

Tim McGraw in The Shack.

The Shack
2 stars
Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Writers: John Fusco (screenplay), Andrew Lanham (screenplay) | 4 more credits »
Stars: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw
Duration: 132 mins
Class: 12
KRS Releasing Ltd

I admit it feels a little mean-spiri­ted to come down hard on a movie whose journey to heaven is paved with such good intentions. However, it is difficult to engage with a film whose worthy messages of faith and hope are buried under blatant cliché.

Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer headline this story of a man dealing with something no-one should ever have to deal with – the loss of a child.

Mack Phillips (Worthington) has a great life: a good job, a very happy marriage to Nan (Radha Mitchell), three great kids, and a strong faith in God. A camping trip goes horribly wrong, however, and his youngest daughter Missy goes missing.

Never found, she is assumed to have fallen victim to a child predator. Mack cannot forgive himself and the guilt he feels drives him apart from the rest of the family and from his once rock-hard faith.

Worthy messages of faith and hope are buried under blatant cliché

When, one day, Mack receives a mysterious note inviting him back to the titular shack, the site of the tragedy, curiosity overcomes him… leading him on a spiritual journey he never expected to take.

A film where Spencer plays God (or a version thereof named Papa) shouldn’t be all that bad, and the actress brings all her talent to bear with her remarkable presence. Her infectious smile, warm demeanour, old-school wisdom and unmistakable charisma make her the perfect candidate and she hits all the right notes as she gently, but firmly, guides Mack to the peace he so desperately seeks.

But she is the only bright note in this ultimately dull ‘spiritual’ piece that is too bogged down in maudlin, yet shallow, sentiment to truly engage with the soul. Had the rest of the film been like her – authentic, complex and deeply spiritual and meaningful, it would have been so much better.

As it happens, the characters are too one-dimensional to ever invite any genuine empathy, especially Mack – his life of perfection a framing device, his bubbly wife and children (Amélie Eve as Missy and Megan Charpentier and Gage Monroe as teens Kate and Josh) mere ciphers.

Granted, Missy is presented as a very bright and impossibly cute kid. But we barely have time to get to know her before she disappears off the screen and out of Mack’s life.

Worthington gives few shades to the character and there is the sense that Mack’s journey from God-fearing man, to a man full of hate and resentment, to one finally discovering the love God has to offer is perfection, is rather perfunctory to the point that when he finally finds the inner peace he craves, it doesn’t feel earned.

The triumph of the human spirit in the face of great tragedy has been fodder for many an inspiring film but The Shack merely skirts over the big issues it tries to address – name­ly why God lets horrible things happen to innocent people – and we are none the wiser once the credits roll. It also resorts to too many tropes about good versus evil in an attempt to give the film meaning.

The dullness of the script is compensated by the bright primary colours, with impossibly beautiful landscapes that permeate the screen; but this palette, the shiny, happy people representing the Holy Trinity (joining Papa are Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush as Jesus and Japanese actress Sumire as Sarayu, a proxy for the Holy Spirit), and an overall lightness of touch completely jars with the horrific tragedy at the heart of the story; a tragedy that, like the film itself, does not get the full weight it deserves.

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