It would be easy to palm The Shack off as a film intended only for a religious crowd – but this is a film that transcends faith; it’s about forgiveness, and the act of overcoming a tragedy in one’s life. Dealing with similar themes to that of which we saw in Martin Scorsese’s Silence – of a man who has spent his life serving God, only to question his own faith given how little he seems to get back in return. Though the films could not be more dissimilar tonally, with this Stuart Hazeldine endeavour unbearable in its contrived sense of spirituality. There’s no denying this is a film that will speak to many – just not me.
Mack (Sam Worthington) is the aforementioned man, a middle-aged father of three who is suffering after his daughter is abducted and murdered – which he feels is a punishment for his own sins from his childhood. Beating himself up over the situation, he is mysteriously invited to a shack in the middle of the woods – which he takes as a direct message from God (Octavia Spencer), and he’s not wrong either. It’s here the bereaving father is allowed the special privilege of experiencing Heaven, allowing him to come to terms with everything his family has been through, as he not only seeks to find it within his heart to forgive himself, but the perpetrator of this heinous crime too.
To evoke a sense of enchantment and tap into otherworldly themes is a challenge to pull off without veering into horribly saccharine territory, and it’s here Hazeldine fails spectacularly. Thankfully Spencer is, quite literally, a shining light within the production, and is wonderfully cast too, for she gives off a real sense of warmth and comfort, which is exactly what you’d think of when imagining God, and she has this presence. Conversely, and while usually subtlety is celebrated, given the sheer fantastical absurdity of the narrative at hand, Worthington has the licence here to be more dramatic, and yet portrays Mack in too understated a fashion, too casual when meeting ‘Papa’. He just looks a bit disinterested – representing, in many ways, how we feel watching.
The message the film preaches (yes, preaches) is flawed too, as though it’s only truly possible to overcome a personal tragedy if God decides you’re special enough to be handpicked and given this incredible experience, otherwise you’re all on your own. The film also preaches (it does a fair bit of that) the act of forgiveness, though after sitting through this mawkish, inane (and irritatingly long) piece of cinema, the only person after that is the director.