Christian films seem to be a dime a dozen these days, so much so that an entire subgenre has been created to accompany them. The latest entry in said genre is “The Shack”, one of the few to gain mainstream attention with a cast of established stars helping to tell the story of one man’s journey to enlightenment and inner peace after a tragic loss through an experience with the Holy Trinity. At times over the top and at other times insightful, “The Shack” is not a movie for the faint of heart, or for anyone looking for an inspiring religious drama without the sugar coating on top.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young, “The Shack” focuses on Mackenzie Phillips, played by Sam Worthington (“Avatar”, “Hacksaw Ridge”), whose daughter is kidnapped and killed during a family camping trip, causing him to question his already delicate faith. When a mysterious letter arrives in his mailbox, Phillips returns to the shack where his daughter was found and finds himself on a miraculous journey where he gains a new understanding of God and his own flaws as a human being while learning to let go of the past.
Before I get to the negatives of this film, let’s focus on the positives. The acting in this movie is truly solid. Each actor owns their role with Worthington putting forward a very touching performance as a broken man trying to come to grips with the wrongs done against him and how he could or couldn’t have changed what happened to his little girl. As Mackenzie Phillips comes face to face with personifications of the Holy Trinity he is forced to come to peace with realities of his own personality that even the most cynical person can admit are among the most basic sins of the human mind including judgment, ignorance, and revenge. These themes and emotions are tackled in a way that anyone, religious or not, can relate to as Phillips learns how he has become a self-destructive human being by dwelling on the loss of his daughter.
Worthington is joined by Octavia Spencer (“Zootopia”, “Hidden Figures”) and Graham Greene (“Dances With Wolves”, “Maverick”) who portray Papa, personifications of God, while Israli actor Aviv Alush and Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara portray Jesus and The Holy Spirit, called Sarayu in the film, making a very interesting statement by having no white actors portray any of The Holy Trinity. Each actors brings their own personalities to these iconic figures and help them stand out through their own merits as they help Mackenzie gain a better understanding of how God and the world work in tandem, sometimes not necessarily for the same good. There’s something very human behind these interpretations of the biblical beings as they help Mackenzie through his struggles and revelations. All the while Mackenzie asks many questions that both believers and non-believers ask of God every day, including why he can stand by and watch his children suffer without intervening. The movie provides some enlightening and interesting answers to these inquiries that, personally as a religious cynic myself, I can say gave me something to think about in terms of my own perspective of religion and how I myself approach life and the struggles and unfairness that come with it.
Despite its delightful and inspiring message however, the film suffers from a lack of creativity and an over-dependence on the weight of its faith-based themes that make it a rather in-your-face film filled with religious cliché’s and a “God above all” message that, at times, overshadows the more simple and universal lessons the movies has to teach. While the meat of the story proves to be worth every minute, the movie starts and ends with messy dialogue and heavy-handed and somewhat preachy glorifications of a faith based life that takes away from the very real hurt and suffering its characters go on to face. The film starts with an all to perfect family and ends with an all too perfect ending that feels rushed, even if it shows the promise that it’s revelations were meant to bear. Sure there’s healing and a new perspective on life, but these things don’t come a quick as they are presented in the film. I found myself missing Mackenzie’s talks with the Holy Trinity even as he shared the tearful conclusion with the ones he loves.
If you can look past the movie’s over-the-top religious setting and preachy dialogue “The Shack” is a very watchable Christian film that can open the heart of even the most anti-religious viewer if given the chance. The core of the film is worth the time with an amazing cast of characters comes together to share a series of messages the world as a whole probably needs to learn. Some of the harshest questions of faith are answered here in a manner that is relatable to anyone who has questioned their purpose of why the world has dealt them a bad hand. In the end some of the revelations may still leave you with questions, but they also may leave you with a more open mind as to how to move on from the worst that life has to give you and why religion, if in the proper hands and minds, can be a force for good rather than one for conflict, war, and judgment.