Having sold over ten million copies, William P. Young's best-selling novel, The Shack, has a reader fanbase that unsurprisingly, has now been tapped into by the movie industry. It is an interesting story of one man's very personal journey through great loss, depression and redemption. But does the film handle this story with the gravity it deserves?
Mack (Sam Worthington) and Nan Phillips (Radha Mitchell) have three children. They are the quintessential all American mid-west God loving family; but when their youngest daughter is murdered, Mack spirals into depression. Then one day a mysterious note is delivered, inviting him to the place of his daughter's death. There he meets the personification of the Christian Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).
For the most part God is played by Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures), a homely African-American woman speaking soft social wisdoms as she bakes. Such representations of mystery incarnate have become a cliche since The Matrix presented the disarming Oracle (played by Gloria Foster). Her motherly (rather than fatherly) portrayal might ruffle some feathers in the Christian fraternity, but given that her persona is someone Mack knows from earlier in his life, it seems that in this instance the personification of God is personal to Mack rather than a middle finger to theology.
At times Mack's conversations with God raise more questions than they answer. Frustratingly, it had me wanting to dive through the screen and throttle Mack for not asking some obvious ones. However, the film settles for a curiously satisfying Christian philosophy rather than a Bible-bashing theology. And, it's important to note that one doesn't have to be a Christian to understand and benefit from its message.
The very American setting eschews its international production which offers talent from around the globe - the only clue being Sam Worthington (Avatar). Try as he might, he still hasn't nailed an American accent and his smokey voice sounded at times like he was auditioning for an Australian version of Batman. English director Stuart Hazeldine (Exam) plays it very safe and perhaps misses opportunities to explore the book's darker themes. The resulting tone constantly errs on surreal beauty (a visual style reminiscent of Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come) and its lush backdrops have all the synthetic beauty of a stock wallpaper for an Apple device. So yes, it's a little smarmy in parts, trite, and laden heavily with saccharin, but The Shack's emotive qualities caught me off guard and the result was very affecting. Certainly worth seeing if you'd like a good cry.