There are few things more terrible than the death of a child, or more frequently exploited by fiction writers for the sake of a cheap cry.
Some movies manage to address the trauma of the experience with tact, sensitivity and emotional integrity — among them a recent double Oscar winner, whose title, in case you haven’t seen it, I’ll refrain from disclosing here. Others, like the wretched “Collateral Beauty,” handle the subject with such brazen cynicism that they beg to be spoiled as quickly and comprehensively as possible.
It’s hard to avoid the subject when talking about “The Shack,” since one of the more morbidly consoling insights of this eccentric faith-based drama — as well as the mega-bestselling William Paul Young novel on which it’s based — is that the Christian Gospel is pretty much the ultimate redemptive dead-child melodrama. And to its credit, “The Shack” is a marginally better movie than “Collateral Beauty,” though their doctrinal differences shouldn’t obscure the fact that they’re swimming in more or less the same pool of therapeutic kitsch.
Each film centers on a man who is grieving the death of his young daughter and who is nursed back to emotional and spiritual health through the benevolent intervention of three divine beings (shades of “A Christmas Carol”). Each film also features the curious device of the father receiving a typewritten letter from those mysterious entities. But while the deities in “Collateral Beauty” are actually counterfeit, “The Shack” would have us believe they constitute the Holy Trinity itself, albeit a highly unorthodox, multicultural version thereof.
God the father, who goes by the name of Papa, is a figure of beaming maternal warmth incarnated by Octavia Spencer — and later, with paternal gruffness, by Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene. (I told you it was eccentric.) Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, is played with a reserved, mysterious smile by Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara. And Jesus, Papa’s son, is embodied by Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush, shamelessly defying the book’s (and the bible’s) contention that Jesus was not an especially handsome dude. (Mercifully, Young’s reference to the size of Jesus’ nose has been left on the cutting-room floor.)
It’s the conceit of “The Shack” — adapted by the screenwriting trinity of John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton — that Papa, Jesus and Sarayu have summoned the bereaved father, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington), to a remote Oregon cottage that’s just a few insipid color filters short of a Thomas Kinkade painting. The house is also not far from the run-down shack where a serial killer took the life of Mack’s younger daughter, Missy (Amélie Eve), shattering his family and his faith in God.
Without telling his concerned wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell), or their two older kids (Gage Munroe and Megan Charpentier), about what he plans to do, Mack steals a truck from his friend (Tim McGraw) and heads to the shack toting a gun, thinking he’s been summoned by the killer himself. What he finds instead is a warmly inviting bucolic retreat where, as Papa, Jesus and Sarayu inform him with a twinkle in their eyes and love in their hearts, he is free to do whatever he pleases.
He can rest, he can help Papa knead bread, he can work in the garden with Sarayu, and he can even walk and run on water with Jesus. (The table-turning contests and magically conjured wine parties will presumably be seen in the unrated director’s cut.)
Mack can leave if he chooses. But he stays, raging against the cosmic injustice of his daughter’s death and his abusive childhood, and listening as his three mentors — joined at one point by Sophia (Alice Braga), a cave lady who represents the embodiment of God’s wisdom — patiently and lovingly correct his thinking.
As someone who read “The Shack” several years ago at a church friend’s recommendation, I have little argument with the theological essence of Young’s story, which has stirred controversy in evangelical circles for its narrative and doctrinal liberties. Both book and movie argue that the suffering in the world, intense and undeserved as it is, hardly disproves the existence of an all-knowing, all-loving deity. The God depicted in “The Shack” longs to meet us all intimately, outside the church and on our own terms, and is working patiently and often invisibly to redeem all humanity — even those souls, like Missy’s killer, we might consider beyond salvation.
All of which would amount to a recommendation for the film’s target audience, I suppose, if the purpose of moviegoing were to nod along in gentle agreement with everything you see and hear — and sadly, too many faith-based independent films cater to precisely this impulse and nothing else. “The Shack,” for all its pleasing narrative derangement, belongs in their underwhelming company. As directed by Stuart Hazeldine, even its jolts of surrealism feel curiously stilted; what it needed was a director whose reverence would be tempered by a healthy sense of the ludicrous, an ability to tap into and draw out the material’s stranger undercurrents.
That Spencer is embodying the latest version of the moribund “Magical Negro” trope, on hand to soothe the consciences of white men and show them the error of their ways, is mitigated slightly by the fact that she’s one of several people of color playing the many faces of God. Her charismatic presence is by far the most memorable thing about the movie, which isn’t even particularly effective on the basest tear-jerking level.
Part of this is due to the drearily platitudinous nature of the drama, which spends more than two hours drowning in banal self-helpisms. Part of it is due to Worthington, who seems to be doing more to suppress his Australian accent than any soul-shaking expression of grief.
And what of Missy, Mack’s ill-fated daughter? “She lives in a place where there is no impatience,” Papa says, which is to say a place where they are almost certainly not screening this movie.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic material including some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: In general release