To approach spirituality on screen and maintain a sense of enchantment is a hurdle many a filmmaker have fallen over; to evoke these feelings of rapture without veering into mawkish territory. However as we saw in Collateral Beauty last winter, it’s not an easy balance to get right – and it’s one that Stuart Hazeldine has struggled with, in his unbearably ethereal drama The Shack. The good news is folks, it’ only two and a quarter hours long.
Sam Worthington plays Mack, who we learn from the offset was behind the murder of his father, poisoning him when the aggressive domestic abuse got too much. Forever feeling in God’s debt, the now middle-aged father of three is convinced that when his daughter is abducted and consequently killed, it’s his punishment for his own past sins. Receiving a mysterious letter directing him to a shack in the middle of nowhere, Mack believes this is a message from God, and it transpires to be just that – as he is introduced to the almighty presence, affectionately known to him as ‘Papa’ (Octavia Spencer). This remarkable meeting serves a purpose, for She allows Mack to peer into the afterlife, and help reconcile this great tragedy that has occurred to his family, all while learning to also forgive himself, too.
Though heavily built around faith, this film is not strictly for a non-secular audience, though needless to say those who do practise religion are likely to resonate with the protagonist in a way others may struggle to. It’s a topic that has every right to be explored in cinema, and will undoubtedly speak to many – it’s just a shame to see it cheapened so greatly by its nauseatingly maudlin tendencies. Silence can be comparable in how we focus in on a man who has dedicated his life to the Church, to suddenly find himself questioning his own faith, struggling to comprehend how a presence he worships can suddenly be so cruel and unjust. But where the Scorsese flick was perhaps a little too inaccessible to a mainstream crowd, this goes too far in the other direction, as you would hardly be surprised to learn than Nickelodeon are behind it (minus the child murder).
On a more positive note, the casting of Spencer is well-judged, not only because it’s funny to see some Americans have taken great objection to God being depicted by an African American woman, but also because she exudes a warmth, and a motherly quality that serves the character well. You trust her implicitly, which is essential when adhering to a role of this nature. Conversely, this is certainly not Worthington’s finest hour (well, two and a quarter), who is perhaps too understated, particularly detrimental when the more dramatic sequences occur, or just when he’s introduced to God, coming across perhaps as a little too casual, and not injecting the required amount of emotional gravitas the role needs, always looking like he’d much rather be somewhere else.
There are questions marks too over the messages The Shack preaches, effectively telling audiences that if you want to overcome a great tragedy in your life, you need some special treatment and a rare one-on-one encounter and a personalised spiritual journey with God acting as a tour guide. If you aren’t fortunate to gaining such a meeting, then good luck pal, you’re on your own.
The Shack is released across the UK on June 9th