"THE SHACK" — 2½ stars — Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw, Radha Mitchell, Avraham Aviv Alush; PG-13 (thematic material, including some violence); in general release
Based on the book by William P. Young, director Stuart Hazeldine's "The Shack" features a powerful message about the process of forgiveness. It's a thought-provoking story, but it isn't necessarily a good movie.
Many of the religious faithful would jump at the chance to spend 15 minutes talking to God face-to-face, but Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) gets a whole weekend. Then again, he could probably use it. After a childhood fraught with physical abuse, Mack seems to have his life on track with a wife (Radha Mitchell) and three kids. Then, on a camping trip near Oregon's Multnomah Falls, his youngest daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) is abducted and murdered.
Mack has always had a testy relationship with his faith, and so he is very suspicious when a year later, a mysterious note summons him to the same shack in the woods where his daughter was killed. But he goes anyway, and finds three people living there.
Technically, what he finds are the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, though "The Shack" has its own way of interpreting the Christian Godhead. The Father, or "Papa," as he's known to Mack's family, is a middle-aged African-American woman, played by Octavia Spencer. The Son (Avraham Aviv Alush) matches Jesus' Middle Eastern heritage, and also has an affinity for woodwork, but keeps his hair cut short and dresses like … well, like a guy who lives in a mountain cabin. The Holy Ghost is Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), an Asian woman who seems to twinkle in the right light.
Each of the three is there to help Mack come to grips with the loss of his daughter and his crisis of faith, and once proper introductions are made, Mack has a sequence of experiences designed to help him through this process. He works on a garden with Sarayu, which is meant to be a reflection of his own wild yet beautiful soul. Jesus tests his faith on an idyllic lake before leading him to a dark cave where Mack learns about the nature of judgment from Wisdom, aka Sophia (Alice Braga). And ultimately, Papa will have to help him confront his deepest demons.
It's easy to see how such a concept would make for a popular novel, and at times "The Shack" is able to provoke real thought and introspection. But as a movie, it struggles with issues of structure and execution, which no doubt happened in the book-to-film transition. There's an awful lot of sitting around talking about philosophy and trying to answer theological questions, the organization of the story at times feels confusing, and the big concept finishes with a bit of a clichéd twist.
On a theological level, Christian audiences will find "The Shack" fascinating, or maybe even frustrating, as they compare their own beliefs to the creative interpretation of the film. Though its message is universal, "The Shack" presumes enough on the part of its audience to suggest it is primarily intended for the Christian faithful.
But "The Shack" is much better when it gets past its surface cuteness and digs into the depths of its message about forgiveness and trial. Even if Hazeldine's effort has its problems as a movie, as a story it still manages to make you think. Fans may ultimately prefer the book to the movie — which is nothing new — but for all its weaknesses, "The Shack" still has value to offer.
"The Shack" is rated PG-13 for thematic material, including some violence; running time: 132 minutes.