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Review: The Shack (2017)

The Shack (2017)

Directed by: Stuart Hazeldine

Premise: Following the murder of his youngest daughter, a father (Sam Worthington) receives a mysterious invitation to spend the weekend at a cabin in the woods. Upon arriving, the father discovers that he was invited by God, who wants the grieving parent to let go of his anger.

What Works: The Shack is handsomely shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn. The story primarily takes place in the outdoors around a cabin on a lake and the scenery is filmed beautifully. Especially notable are the ways in which the film transitions between the winter and the springtime imagery; the use of light and color are striking and the scenery reflects the emotional state of the lead character. As a faith-based movie, The Shack deserves some credit for attempting to deal with matters of faith beyond the victimhood framework. A lot of films angled toward the faith-based audience, such as the God’s Not Dead movies, reinforce a persecution narrative and play to the worst instincts of their audience. Whatever its other faults, The Shack does not do that.

What Doesn’t: The Shack is a compromised movie. Its flaws reflect the shortcomings of most popular discussions about matters of faith. The main character has suffered a tragedy—his youngest daughter was abducted and murdered—and he is left to make sense of his pain. Specifically, the father is unable to reconcile this apparently random act of violence with a belief in a benevolent and loving god. The problem of evil is a complex one that theologians and philosophers have struggled to answer. To their credit, the filmmakers of The Shack have come up with a scenario that captures the essence of it; an angry and grieving father hashes out the problem with God over the course of a weekend. But the filmmakers of The Shack are not interested in complexity. This is where the movie is compromised. A lot of what passes for philosophical or theological discussions in popular culture are hampered by an unwillingness to work with ambiguities or complexities. That’s exactly the problem of The Shack. The filmmakers pose a complicated question but pursuing that question to its conclusion could lead to uncomfortable or difficult answers. Instead of engaging with the very issues that they raise, the filmmakers fall back on vague and simplistic responses that are intended to make everyone feel good but don’t really answer the question. The Shack consists of a series of discussions between the father and several incarnations of God; the film suggests the Christian notion of the trinity as God appears simultaneously as three different people: an African American woman played by Octavia Spencer, a man of Middle Eastern descent played by Avraham Aviv Alush, and an Asian woman played by Sumire Matsubara. Other characters enter into the film as well, namely a figure claiming to be Wisdom played by Alice Braga. None of the conversations are all that compelling. The actors do what they can with the material but the writing is terrible. This is a very didactic movie and the story gets lost in the arguments. Each conversation ought to move the father toward an epiphany but The Shack just reiterates the same themes over and over, which mostly amount to God denying any responsibility while insisting that he or she loves us. The arguments of The Shack aren’t thoughtful or convincing and a lot of them are either superficial or riddled with obvious logical flaws. The film retreats from anything challenging and it does so in a way that actually trivializes the pain that this man has experienced. The Shack isn’t helped by the miscasting of Sam Worthington as the father. His accent arbitrarily shifts and Worthington does not have the range and subtlety that this role requires.

Bottom Line: The Shack is so focused on its faith-affirming message that the filmmakers forget to do the storytelling work that would make that message meaningful or impactful. It is not a badly intentioned film but it isn’t very well executed either.

Episode: #638 (March 12, 2017)