When self-published novel “The Shack” hit shelves back in 2007, first-time author William P. Young’s Christian drama was met with significant controversy, thanks to its inventive portrayal of the Holy Trinity as an African American woman, a young Middle-Eastern man and an Asian woman. Despite outcry from the exact kind of religious audience the book was pursuing, the book became an unexpected smash hit. Ten years later, it’s finally spawned a glossy, inevitable Hollywood adaptation – and one made palatable only because of that same off-beat trio. That’s particularly true for Octavia Spencer, who literally embodies God in the Stuart Hazeldine film.
Clocking in at a brutally overstuffed 135 minutes, the film manages to fit a feature’s worth of drama into its opening credits. Hobbled by a hammy, exposition-heavy voiceover from Tim McGraw (who uses the word “shack” three times within the film’s first minute), the film introduces us to young Mack (Carson Reaume), a Midwestern farm kid struggling with the actions of his alcoholic and abusive father. Spencer pops up as kindly, pie-offering neighbor who implores Mack to talk to God about his woes (even in this small, early bit, she is transcendent). When he does just that, it backfires spectacularly, leading Mack to disengage from his faith and potentially fatally poison his father (it’s never exactly clear if he succeeds, which is a weird choice for any movie, especially one that’s all about redemption).
And that all happens before the film’s actual title card appears.
Although Mack’s (dead?) daddy issues continue well into his adulthood, he seems to have carved out a nice life for himself, thanks to three cute kids and a loving wife Nan (Radha Mitchell), all of whom are far more engaged with God than Mack. Nan informally refers to God as “Papa,” a nickname that the rest of the family cheerily carries on, though Mack’s distance from his creator is clear. When a tragedy strikes Mack’s family — delivered through both unnecessary McGraw voiceover and wrenching flashback — their divisions are made even more striking.
During a family vacation, Mack and Nan’s youngest, Missy (Amelie Eve, who adds some super-sized kid charm), is abducted and murdered by a madman who literally lives in a shack in the woods. The entire family is damaged by the shock and pain of losing Missy, especially the shell-shocked Mack and Missy’s grief-stricken older sister Kate (Megan Charpentier). By the time the film makes its way to the meat of its storyline, the family’s pain is both everyday and overwhelming.
But Papa has other plans. A depressed Mack, played in his elder years by Sam Worthington (who appears to be hampered by a mealy-mouthed American accent that makes most restrained emoting impossible), soon finds a mysterious note in his mailbox that asks him to come to the shack (yes, the shack where Missy was murdered) for a weekend of reconnection. It’s signed “Papa.” With nothing else to lose — and nothing else to believe in — Mack takes the bait.
Hazeldine’s film often relies on whiz-bang emotional misdirection, like a sudden boat accident that distracts Mack just before Missy is taken and a near-miss with a semi truck that exists only for a third act callback that’s as cheap as they come, but he fortunately turns that off by the time Mack arrives back at the shack. What he discovers there is an unexpected trio of holy spirits, with Spencer cast as God (or Papa, if you’re feeling familiar), alongside Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Ghost, known as Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).
The trinity has just one aim — get Mack to feel better — but it’s complicated by the various issues at play, including his own guilt, the anger he feels toward God and his teetering rejection of faith. Through alternating methods of healing, including walking on water with Jesus, gardening with Sarayu, cooking with God and literally meeting Wisdom, Mack begins to come to grips with his tragedy. Spencer and Alush turn in the film’s best performances, and Spencer’s natural warmth and Alush’s deep charm keep “The Shack” hammering right along.
Despite the heaviness of so much of the story (and any film that frequently shows the scattered blood left behind by a dead child gets heavy), Hazeldine and his cast often lean into the weirdness and humor of the situation at hand, which results in the film’s best moments. But that’s also the root of the feature’s principal problem: wildly vacillating changes in tone and an unwieldy sense of narrative drive.
When Worthington and his wacky trio are allowed to loosen up, “The Shack” radiates with undeniable sweetness, but the darker elements grind it to an unnerving halt. Worthington is particularly ill-suited to heavy material, and the actor struggles to deliver emotion without verging into pure ham. The messaging of the film — and this is definitely a message movie — also tends to go down much more smoothly when delivered with something verging on actual humanity, eschewing preachiness for reliability.
Giving a human face to God (and picking Spencer to portray her, canny casting of the highest) and setting her inside a narrative that doesn’t balk at digging into the weirdness of that has kept “The Shack” controversial for over a decade, but it’s also the best part of Hazeldine’s film. It’s the one part worth preaching about.
“The Shack” opens in theaters on Friday, March 3.