Every time you think Hollywood’s got a handle on”faith-based” films, they go out and make another movie reminding you of the extremes these movies too often fall into.
For every “Miracles from Heaven,” “Risen” or “Soul Surfer,” there are scads of clunkers at either end of the spectrum. We get too much of the angry, anti-intellectual victimhood of “God’s Not Dead,” and the insipid piffle of “Heaven is For Real” or “Letters to God.”
“The Shack” sits firmly in the latter trash pile. A grim “feel-good” drama about a father (Sam Worthington) who earns a visit to heaven after losing his little girl to a murderous abductor and losing himself in grief, it features a big name cast and a some novel casting touches, but nothing else to recommend it.
Perhaps, when you see that father sprinting happily across the surface of a lake with Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) you will agree. And giggle.
Worthington (“Avatar”), an Aussie who has reduced his acting to a whisper so hoarse every line sounds looped in post-production, is Mack, the dad whose camping trip with his kids goes terribly wrong in an instant.
His teen daughter (Megan Charpentier) stands up in a canoe and tips it over. And while he’s rescuing her and his son, his littlest girl (Amelie Eve) is kidnapped.
Stuart Hazeldine’s film handles the shock and terror of this moment reasonably well. As the trauma of the innocent child’s fate becomes clear, her father falls into crippling grief, the surviving daughter clams up with guilt, leaving the faithful wife and mother (Radha Mitchell) and their preacher (country star Tim McGraw) to try and hold them all together.
Nan (Mitchell) has such a personal relationship with God that she addresses the Almighty as Papa, “a little too familiar for my taste,” Mack confesses. But when he gets a letter from Papa in his mailbox, a teasing taunt inviting him back to “The Shack” where his little girl met her end, Mack is enraged. Who sent it? The preacher, inviting him to seek solace in his faith? The killer?
It’s when Mack sets out for that shack in the woods that his spiritual healing and forgiveness begin.
Here’s what I liked. The oldest daughter questions their faith, comparing the myths of the Bible to an Indian legend Dad likes to relate, to which Dad simplistically replies, “If the Bible says it, it must be true.” Unquestioning, delivered without a serious moment’s thought.
The comforting presence that greets Mack at the shack is played by Earth Mother/Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, not exactly your stereotypical representation of God. Jesus isn’t a blond/blue-eyed Viking preacher, but Middle Eastern.
Then there’s the Third leg of the Trinity, the “Holy Wind” (or spirit, if you like). She’s played by Sumire Matsubara, a willow model, beautiful and runway ready but an acting non-starter.
In this fantastical forest of healing Mack finds himself in, winter ends and all is flowering and verdant. His “issues” are analyzed, and his anger for his deity is delivered in a hiss (as is most every line).
“You let my little girl die. You abandoned me.”
All he gets in return is cryptic, narcissistic self-help hooey.
“When all you see if your pain, you lose sight of Me.”
There are attempts at humor. Cooking in heaven is just…heavenly, prompting “Oh my GOD” this food is good jokes. And there’s half-a-laugh in Spencer’s reaction to Mack/Worthington’s expectation of “your whole WRATH thing.”
But from the unnecessary preacher-narration that invades the film here and there to the inane routines the heavenly trio push at Mack — fishing, eating, walks, debates and prayer — “The Shack” is saddled with the banal when it claims to be presenting the extraordinary.
The best faith-based films don’t lean on the supernatural nearly this heavily. But the self-published novel this is built on is deep into fantasy fiction, so there you are.
So while I appreciate any faith-based film that isn’t all about the anger and intellectual dishonesty of “God’s Not Dead,” there’s no endorsing a fairy-tale this literal and insipid.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic material including some violence
Cast: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Avraham Aviv Alush
Credits:Directed by Stuart Hazeldine, script by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham, Destin Daniel Cretton, based on the novel by William P. Young. A Summit/Liongsate release.