UK Release Date: 9th June 2017
Runtime: 132 minutes
Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Writer: John Fusco, Andrew Lanham, Destin Cretton
Starring: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Aviv Alush, Sumire, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Tim McGraw
Synopsis: A grieving man travels to a remote shack, where he spends a weekend with the Holy Trinity and learns the benefit of forgiveness in producing closure.
Films about faith don’t have a good recent track record. The two God’s Not Dead movies somehow made their way from the Bible belt homeland to UK cinemas and now they have been joined by Stuart Hazeldine‘s laughably evangelical The Shack – a film which suggests that grief is for Godless people. Bathed in a sickly sweet, syrupy glow and full to bursting with quasi-Biblical speechifying, it’s a nauseating watch. If sitting in your elderly aunt’s overly heated, terribly wallpapered living room drinking sugary tea and being lectured about God is your idea of fun, then buy a ticket. Otherwise, just go to Church instead. At least that scenario would allow you to think for yourself.
Mack (Sam Worthington) is deeply suspicious of religion, having been abused by his dad – a senior Church figure. Years later, he is racked with guilt when his youngest daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a stranger. When his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and the other children go away for the weekend, he receives a letter purporting to be from God, inviting him to a cabin in the woods. Mack steals his friend’s van to head out there and spends the weekend with God (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire). They teach him the power of forgiveness and help him to control his grief with faith… or something.
As with many religious films, The Shack spends most of its running time patronising the audience – whether they are atheists or people with faith. It’s a movie that, on the face of it, has an honourable message about forgiveness but ignores the staying power of grief. Recent years have produced films like The Babadook, A Monster Calls and Manchester by the Sea that deal with bereavement in a nuanced, compelling way. In The Shack, prayer is enough to override any sense of lasting grief. Indeed, by the end of the film, it’s as if Sam Worthington’s character never lost a child at all.
Worthington presents another of the enormous issues with the film. He’s a character whose back-story is sketched out in the most obvious way possible, with a hideously misjudged hint of murder in his past. Worthington’s performance then veers wildly between skepticism and uber-faith with no correlation to the events on screen. Equally incongruous is his accent. The character is from the American Midwest, but Worthington’s native Aussie accent pops up roughly once a scene like a baby kangaroo that can’t stay in its pouch for long. The star’s lack of charisma has been obvious since Avatar and this is yet another role in which he saps all the energy from the screen.
The actors playing the Holy Trinity, meanwhile, are saddled with some of the year’s worst big screen dialogue. Octavia Spencer, who brings an admirable gravitas to the biggest role imaginable, is handed so many clichés and platitudes she could get a job writing birthday cards. It is Spencer who is left to deliver the film’s most toxic message – that religion is a path to eradicating grief. It’s a hideous, lecturing message that alienates anyone who has felt the often unshakable power of grief. In The Babadook, grief lurks in the background even after the characters’ final “victory”. Here, the power of prayer is enough to banish it entirely.
Religious cinema is no bad thing and, given the staunch atheism of some in the movie world, plurality of views is a great thing. Indeed, despite the myriad crimes of the God’s Not Dead movies, they contain some chirpy comedy and at least one killer musical number per film. That, alone, is worth buying a ticket to see. The Shack, though, is the cinematic equivalent of being bashed over the head with a Bible for two hours and then told to forgive your assailant. Whatever this is, it isn’t a morality tale anyone should be following.
Pop or Poop?
However potent your faith, or however firm your atheist convictions, The Shack presents a laughable idea of religion. It’s a sugar-coated and entirely unhelpful tale, with melodrama written through its core like a stick of Brighton Rock. The performers are mostly capable – with the notable exception of Worthington and his globe-trotting accent – but the material is so deeply flawed that there’s nothing they can do accept pray for a better job next time around.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.