It was pretty much inevitable that a version of The Shack, the bestselling novel by Canadian-born author William Paul Young, would find its way to the big screen.
Any book boasting worldwide sales numbering close to 20 million has, in the lingo of the publishing and film industry, a huge platform – a large base of people likely to want to see the film. That said, the motivation to bring this project to screen is much less about its money-earning capacity than the passion of its supporters. The fruit of that labour debuts this weekend in theatres across North America.
What follows is a review of the film intended to assess its merits as a film and not, as much as possible, to be an assessment of its theology or its utility as an outreach tool.
Directed by relative newcomer Stuart Hazeldine, The Shack centres on Mack Phillips, a character played by Aussie Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans), while Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) takes on the slightly ironic title of Papa in the film. Country music’s Tim McGraw rounds out the trio of the film’s most recognizable names by doing double duty as Mack’s friend Willie, and also performing occasional narrator duties in the story.
The storyline revolves around Mack and his family – his wife Nan, his son Josh, and daughters Kate and Missy. A Labour Day camping trip as a solo parent with his three children pivots for Mack during a segment of time that morphs from danger to relief – and then to unspeakable tragedy.
Mack is left drowning in the wake of events that carry momentum far beyond his natural ability (or anyone’s for that matter) to cope, and it’s a shell of Mack that the viewer encounters in the contemporary narrative that bookends the heart of the story.
A cryptic invitation in his mailbox invites Mack to return to the place where his life was forever altered. It spurs him in desperation and confusion to seek out the rendezvous, hoping beyond reasonable hope that he will, somehow, meet God.
The central premise of the film revolves around Mack’s encounter – not with a shapeless and invisible deity, but rather with a tactile and personified Holy Trinity. It is cinematically novel to see the portrayal of Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) put into juxtaposition with Sarayu (Samire Matsubara) – the embodiment of the Holy Spirit – and Papa (Octavia Spencer), who is God the Father.
The conversations that follow between Mack and his earthly heavenly hosts become the vehicle that allows him to process his confusion, pain, anger and grief.
From a screenwriter’s perspective, this central platform of the film poses a real challenge for audience engagement. To be faithful to the source material of Young’s story, long conversations that explore theological dilemmas need to be reflected on screen, and yet long-winded dialogue between talking heads will lose an audience’s interest quicker than the latest political scandal in a 24-hour news cycle.
The solution? Create characters that the audience will want to spend time with, even if they’re only talking, as well as to have an emotional journey that will substitute for the more dynamic and action-oriented plots associated with most films.
Sam Worthington’s portrayal of Mack is intriguing. Playing an emotionally blunted man, weathered and worn by emotional trauma, requires an actor to render his craft in a relatively narrow bandwidth.
Worthington certainly captures some of that wounded quality; however, there is definitely room for a more expansive range of emotions than Worthington delivers. The current gold (or platinum really) standard for portraying a father devastated by loss is no less than Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea. It might be asking a lot to expect others to ascend to those lofty heights, but it’s worth asking nonetheless.
If a compelling screen presence is required to carry this film, then that presence can be found in Octavia Spencer, who, like the aforementioned Affleck, has earned her acting bona fides. Some people may find it strange to have a matronly African-American woman embody the senior partner of the Holy Trinity, but this is the manifestation of God upon which the success of the novel, and the film, depends.
It’s not a novelty to see God portrayed in the movies – memorable examples include the cigar-wielding George Burns (Oh God) or the golden-voiced Morgan Freeman (Bruce Almighty), but those roles were enacted in comedies and didn’t require much in the way of credibility.
Spencer, as Papa, inhabits a presence that persuasively, but not coercively, woos the love and trust of Mack. Her patient conversations with Mack, which include much laughter and even the occasional playful dig, underlie the central tenet of the story – namely, that God is first and foremost relational in nature, and infinite in love.
Whenever the film seems to feel like it’s wandering off to a disengaging place, it’s brought back to its emotional centre by the appearance of Papa as portrayed by Spencer. It’s a powerful thing to think that an inspired acting performance can deliver so much, and the film’s producers did their best work with their casting choice of Octavia Spencer.
As a film, The Shack remains open to the criticism that it is emotionally manipulative. Detractors will point to a tragedy that is off the charts in the depiction of its worst-case scenario; in a culture that puts a premium value on realism, the unseen villain may seem like a character plucked from the stage of melodrama. Likewise, the resolution of Mack’s life issues, family concerns and profound pain occur in a time frame that may well seem unrealistic.
Of course, the audience’s worldview about the possibilities of dramatic and divine intervention in life will necessarily colour their response to what is offered as resolution.
At a running time of two hours and twelve minutes, the film may seem long to some, but the pacing is reasonable. The visuals of the film work best in its exterior scenes which were, interestingly, filmed in British Columbia. Canadian content also comes into play in a cameo of Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves) and a reference to Papa’s enjoyment of Neil Young’s music (in the novel the kudos are given to Bruce Cockburn).
This movie will find its greatest comfort level among those who are familiar with North American church culture. While it certainly transcends those boundaries, it will be interesting to see how secular audiences react to the portrayals inherent in the film.
As an audience member, I felt genuine emotion while watching the film and was duly impressed by Octavia Spencer. And while there must be certain reservations held on issues already discussed in this review, I would say that this is a movie that deserves an audience, and that those audience members should have the opportunity to feel like they are someone of whom Papa is especially fond.
Watch for a feature article that examines a wider variety of responses to this movie, and to the novel that inspired it, coming in the May/June issue of Faith Today. Subscribe now so you don’t miss it! While you’re waiting, check out an interview we did with the author about the novel in 2008.