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I had a number of reactions to The Shack, almost all of them positive, but my first reaction struck me very early on in the movie. The voice-over narration (provided by a very much in-his-element Tim McGraw) speaks of the family at the center of the film, of the religious devotion of the mother, Nan Phillips played by Radha Mitchell, and how she has such a close relationship with God that she calls God “Papa.” It goes on to tell of the church going habits of the Phillips family and then settles into a lingering shot of the family in church, praying and singing hymns.
I turned to The Cinnamon Girl, my all-time favorite movie-going partner, and said “people will accept all kinds of things in movies: superheroes, elves, hobbits, the undead, but throw a church scene in and people stay away in droves.” This is no great insight, but I do think it is a true observation. Audiences are highly uncomfortable with depictions of normal, every-day faith on television or in film. Audiences can suspend all kinds of disbelief, but do not expect them to stomach and kind of actual belief.
If you are reading this review, you know that The Shack deals with a lot more than ordinary belief. The film centers on a very solid Sam Worthington as Mack Phillips, a man who has suffered much tragedy in his life (and has caused some, too). The final straw that breaks his relationship with God happens in a shack and the shack becomes the place where Mack will have to wrestle with his faith. As he meets the Trinity in physical form, Mack must decide if what he is experiencing is real and if, at the end of the day, that matters. Mack is so distant from God, encountering God in the flesh, as it were, may not be enough to fix what is broken inside him.
The Shack is a very good movie. In moments where I suspected it would disappoint, it did not. The movie actually asks some very big questions and provides very few answers. It tackles issues of the problem of evil in the world, the question of how an all-knowing, all-loving god can allow suffering and the tension between religion and faith. Rarely does the movie take the easy way out of these questions and it should be commended for this.
The film’s success rests squarely on the chemistry between Worthington and the ever wonderful Octavia Spencer. She is terrific here. In a role that could become tiresome and preachy, Spencer finds humor and a character arc. That is saying something considering the character she is playing. She and Worthington do fine together. He is very buttoned down for most of the film, but that is what the story calls for. Much like other actors with whom she is paired, Worthington comes to life in scenes with Spencer. Their chemistry is the second best part of the movie
The best part is Avraham Aviv Lalush. Playful, magnetic and, yes, inspiring, Lalush takes a character who has been portrayed time-and-again and makes him his own. The movie is better ever time Lalush is on screen and I wanted to see much more of him.
Not everything works and director Stuart Hazeldine is asked to capture on film things that are almost impossible to capture, but he does a fine job. The movie he has crafted is unapologetic, moving and spiritual. Adapted from the novel by William P. Young, The Shack is not always easy to watch, but it always has something to say. I have yet to read the source material so I do not know whether it was director or author who chose to have God represented by an African American woman, an Asian woman, a Muslim man and a Native American man but well done! Very, very well done!
I would be leaving something out of this review if I did not mention that I was moved by the movie. It does have emotional heft and spiritual resonance.
It deserves a wider audience than it is likely to get.
THE SHACK receives FOUR NOTES IN A MAILBOX out of a possible FIVE.