The Shack was directed by Stuart Hazeldine (Exam), written by John Fusco (Hidalgo, The Forbidden Kingdom), Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy) who adapt from a book by William P. Young. It stars Sam Worthington (Pros and Ex-Cons, Sabotage), Octavia Spencer (Gifted, Snowpiercer), Avraham Aviv Alush (Ha-E, Valley of Tears), Sumire (Inhumans, The Brighton Miracle), Radha Mitchell (Rogue, Run Hide Fight), Gage Munroe (Nobody, I Declare War), Megan Charpentier (It, Mama), Amelie Eve (The Exorcist) and Tim McGraw (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights). It follows a man as he goes through the grieving process with the assistance of God after the loss of his daughter.
The Plot: While not a challenging plot to follow, the writers do create one that’s hard to sit through, but in a good way. Certain directions the story takes are more surprising than would be expected for most movies with a Christian bent to them, which gives The Shack something special.
After a rough childhood and an even rougher reaction to it, Mack (Worthington) found himself a wife in Nan (Mitchell) and had Josh (Munroe), Kate (Charpentier), and Missy (Eve) with her and has mostly settled into a life he enjoys. Hazeldine sets up that life as idyllic, with a nice house, a nice car, nice kids, and a nice neighbour in Willie (McGraw) but does well to include a sense of yearning from Mack.
He takes his family (sans Nan) on a camping trip where he loses Missy only to find out that she’d been killed. While not much detail is given to this matter, it’s handled with care so as not to seem exploitative or out of place in this story, as are most of the admittedly few plot points.
Sometime later Mack gets a letter personally addressed to him by someone using a familiar name, leading him back to the shack where his daughter was found. Expecting to find the man that did it, he instead finds Papa (Spencer), Jesus (Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire) waiting for him. The Shack takes a while to get to the titular location but it never feels too slow with a lead as instantly sympathetic as Mack.
Mack’s arrival marks a cooldown in the plot, with his entire purpose for being there, his development, taking precedence over any developments to the story itself. The trio introduces Mack to the fantastical alterations to the world around him and aims to help him work through the rut that he’s been stuck in since the death of his daughter.
Not much really happens in The Shack. In the traditional sense anyway, but this movie doesn’t have a need for reveals of mysteries or explosive action, making strong use of what’s less of a plot and more of a kickstart.
The Characters: With a movie like this, having characters that are either too open to interpretation or even too specifically created, would cause the impact of their arcs and the dramatic heft of the situation to be lost. Thanks to the creators, this isn’t what happens to the ones here.
Mack as a character is excellent. He’s had a traumatic upbringing and did something that most people wouldn’t think of doing in retaliation, which establishes him as his own entity separate from nearly every viewer’s own history. What keeps him as strong as a surrogate for said audience is the way he’s portrayed as an everyman with a middle-class neighbourhood, family, friends, and way of life. He’s starting to come undone though; losing the connection between himself and those around him, which allows for his arc of forgiveness to come to fruition, but that doesn’t come easy and through the prism of a father, that’s well illustrated.
Papa represents the head of the three pieces of the Trinity. She’s the one that Mack’s most familiar with thanks to Nan (the nickname “Papa” is something she came up with during her own childhood) and has popped up during the most trying times of his life.
Of the many ways she can choose to communicate with Mack, she chooses to talk about the broad strokes of how God acts in accordance with His laws and how humans are well within their own power to abide by them or not. Out of the three, she’s the one with the most brewing inside because of having to watch people place blame where it doesn’t belong, and at times even seems to have doubts about herself too.
Jesus is the most laid back of all of them, offering tours of the area surrounding the Shack itself to lull Mack into a peaceful state of mind and then bring him the closest he can possibly get to witnessing the things that haunt him, testing Mack to see if he’s starting to pick up on what he and the others are laying down for him. He stands back with a watchful eye, the opposite of how Papa tries to get to him.
Sarayu is the least fleshed out of the three, having significantly fewer scenes that take place solely between her and Mack. Definitely the most introspective beyond Mack himself, she spells out the fact that he’s a beautiful mess and kind of drops off the map. Compared to the others in the cast, she’s left out in a big way.
The Shack isn’t perfect in its visualization of God (it’s hard to be ignorant of the fact that the actors in the Trinity roles aren’t accurate), but it’s great at characterizing God for a film, and Mack, the man that’s at the center of it all is a terrific interpretation of a fatherly figure
The Drama: Hazeldine is able to split the drama into two facets; one is focused on Mack’s understanding of God and the other is on forgiveness. Both are very well done if at times (more specifically *one* time) can begin to feel like a sermon but move on before that becomes the case.
With each hump that Mack must get over, there’s a conversation to be had between him and one member of the Trinity, and they’re put to the screen in such a way that the characters and the drama almost feel separate from each other while still indisputably forming a Venn diagram. Mack’s comprehension of how God acts takes up half of the dramatic bent of the movie, and as scenes for a movie, it’s constructed well while never feeling too diluted with sappiness.
Dialogues go back and forth about God’s policy on the evils of the world and the writers don’t tip the scales in favour of Mack or the trio, for a time anyway since this movie is clearly made with a specific purpose, which lets The Shack feel like a discussion instead of a lesson.
What’s even better though, is Mack’s journey of forgiveness. The Shack makes no reductions about the act itself, which is wrestled with throughout most of the movie in an authentic way. Mack isn’t certain about the path he wants to go down until a large portion of the runtime has been worked through and even after that point, the way he bounces around from being willing to let go to being reminded of the pain that he went through and still vividly remembers is distinctly human; partially because of the writing and partially because of the acting.
A single scene involving Mack and spirits in a field breaks that immersion for a time with its simplistic dialogue that’s far less authentic than the primary arc of forgiving the man who took his daughter away from him. It feels touched on for necessity and jostles the journey despite its inclusion being a logical one.
The Shack offers an interesting discussion about Christian theology (though it never picks a denomination) in its broad strokes in a way that shouldn’t dispirit (I’m not sorry for the pun) many and creates a compelling and nuanced look with some daring decisions at a distinctly human action… with a couple of hiccups.
The Technics: A movie surrounding this topic should look the part, and thanks to steady if a little innocuous direction from Hazeldine, wonderful locations, production design led by Joseph C. Nemec III (Terminator 2, Riddick) (if the eponymous location doesn’t draw you in visually, you’re crazy), and a bright colour palette, The Shack is something worth taking a look at.
A huge hit to parts of the movie is dealt by the visual effects. Some of them are fantastical by design, such as the waviness of a look into the place where Missy now resides and the growth of a garden, but others like that aforementioned scene in the middle of a meadow are laughably bad. Allegedly this too is by design but I have little confidence in that statement.
Surprisingly enough, this 126-minute movie (excluding credits) is paced very well too and allows for some downtime in which Mack and the audience can take in the dialogue and mull it over internally, though this may not be the opinion of all who watch. The whole movie can be described with a similar statement about not being for everyone. It’s indisputably evangelical, but not shove-it-down-your-throat evangelical thanks to the way it handles character and dramatic scenes.
The Shack will be a divisive movie by default, but it’s certainly well crafted, well-characterized, well-paced, and extremely well-acted, especially by Worthington and Spencer. It’s not theologically perfect, nor cinematically, but it’s great enough to warrant a high score.