With The Shack, a numbingly earnest Easter-season offering, Octavia Spencer joins the ranks of performers who have played God. Hers is a Supreme Being with none of the winking, kvetching or bossiness we’ve seen in versions rendered by Morgan Freeman, George Burns, Ralph Richardson and Alanis Morissette, to name a few. The warm, maternal “Papa” portrayed by Spencer is all loving magnanimity — the movie is, like the publishing-phenomenon novel on which it’s based, essentially a theodicy, or defense of God’s goodness.
And given that William Paul Young’s book has sold many millions of copies, Lionsgate can expect an eager flock in theaters; fans will want to see how the story of a grief-crippled man’s weekend-long encounter with the Almighty translates to the big screen. For those who come to the material not as devotees, that translation unfolds with a Bible-study-meets-Esalen awkwardness. It’s hard to imagine the feature generating the same word-of-mouth that turned a self-published story into an international best-seller.
The questions are profound, and so is the tedium.
With its sparkly spin on the New Testament, the film will be too New Agey for those who hew closely to doctrine (some conservative Christians have criticized the novel as a work of misguided heresy). But beyond theological debates, the feature is a leaden, belabored affair. However universal the perennial questions and struggles that The Shack illuminates, under Stuart Hazeldine’s plodding direction, its faith-based brand of self-help feels like being trapped in someone else’s spiritual retreat — in real time.
Hazeldine, whose only previous feature is the 2009 psychological thriller Exam, bungles crucial transitions, especially in the early sequences that shift between past and present to set up the story of Mackenzie Phillips (Sam Worthington). A married father of three in Oregon, Mack has succumbed to a “great sadness” when he receives a mysterious note inviting him to the mountain shack where his youngest daughter, Missy (Amelie Eve), was murdered after being abducted during a camping trip. The note is signed “Papa,” as his wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell), likes to call God. Nan, we’re told in the voiceover narration by Mack’s neighbor Willie (Tim McGraw), has a strong and abiding relationship with God — which presumably accounts for her preternatural calm in the direst of circumstances.
In the depths of winter, the uninhabited shack still bears the stains of Missy’s blood. But before long the suicidal Mack finds himself welcomed into a sun-washed glen, the kind of place where brutality and suffering are unimaginable. Filled with ferns, spring flowers and chirping birds, it has a Disney-cartoon sheen and is occupied by the Holy Trinity: Spencer’s biscuit-baking, African-American “Papa” (“I have a lot of names”); the Middle Eastern carpenter Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush, an Israeli actor in his first English-language role); and Sarayu (Japanese pop star Sumire), a spirit of creativity in the form of an Asian woman who gardens and collects tears in delicate little bottles.
There’s a scented-candle, lifestyle aspect to the lessons that ensue. Determined to heal Mack and resolve his doubts about God’s love, the Trinity, in their flowy Eileen Fisher–ish neutrals and comfy Pottery Barn cottage, are infinitely kind and patient, and mostly insufferable for it. As Sophia, or wisdom personified, Alice Braga dispenses a slightly tougher form of love, but one that’s no less maddening in its sermon-y monotone.
Hazeldine and his design team clearly wanted to cast these supernatural encounters in a super-relatable light, an approach that’s echoed in the screenplay. Credited to three screenwriters (John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Cretton), the adaptation interweaves the homespun clichés of Willie’s narration around the main event: a series of colloquies that tackle timeless questions about the nature of evil, the power of forgiveness and humankind’s place in the universe.
The view of a personal God as a gender-fluid shape-shifter (Graham Greene appears as a male version of Papa) will be inspiring to some, anathema to others. The same goes for the multicultural Trinity. In its stereotype-trafficking way, The Shack challenges narrow conceptions of what a Christian (and perhaps, by extension, an American) looks or sounds like. It’s not the film’s ideas that are its problem, but the heavy-handed literalness with which they’re explored.
There’s a little-boy openness to Worthington’s features that suits the role of Mack, a man understandably struggling with a lifetime’s worth of loss and guilt, but there’s only so much he can do with material so lacking in subtlety. Spencer, who can say more with a glance than most, radiates the requisite affection, however contrived the setup. She delivers a piercing moment of compassion in a flashback to Mack’s troubled childhood, and a priceless quip in one of the film’s rare instances of humor.
Visually, Mack’s sacred encounters are pretty but never soul-stirring, even with ace cinematographer Declan Quinn on hand. (Among Quinn’s many credits are a couple of Jonathan Demme’s documentaries on Neil Young, which might explain why the musician gets an ain’t-I-hip shout-out from Papa.) Hazeldine leaves the potential dramatic power of the natural setting — shooting took place primarily in Vancouver — mostly unfulfilled.
The movie’s only truly affecting encounter is a brief, direct and visually unadorned exchange between Mack and his older daughter, Kate (Megan Charpentier), who has been at least as wracked by pain and self-reproach over Missy’s death as Mack. Otherwise, from Missy’s precociously discerning questions about God to the constant coaxing of Aaron Zigman’s score to a strained depiction of “closure” between Mack and his abusive father (Derek Hamilton), what should be deeply touching is merely forced. McGraw’s voiceover may assure us that “you’ll have to decide for yourself.” But room for contemplation is nowhere to be found in The Shack.
Production companies: Summit Entertainment, Gil Netter Productions, Windblown Media, TIK Films
Cast: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw, Sumire, Amelie Eve, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Derek Hamilton
Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Screenwriters: John Fusco, Andrew Lanham, Destin Cretton
Based on the book by William Paul Young, in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings
Producers: Gil Netter, Brad Cummings
Executive producers: Mike Drake, Qiuyun Long
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Joseph Nemec
Costume designers: Stacy Caballero, Karin Nosella
Editor: William Steinkamp
Composer: Aaron Zigman
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes