The Shack review: A vision of heaven that feels like purgatory

Not even Octavia Spencer as God can save this Oprahfied version of paradise

Jesus (Aviv Alush), Mack (Sam Worthington) Papa (Octavia Spencer) and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara)

Film Title: The Shack

Director: Stuart Hazeldine

Starring: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw, Sumire

Genre: Fantasy

Running Time: 132 min

Thu, Jun 8, 2017, 12:30

   

The Shack, a faith-themed novel by Canadian author William P Young, was self-published in 2007. It has subsequently spent more than 18 months at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and has shifted more than 10 million copies, spawning additional self-help books and now a major motion picture.

Not everyone is a true believer. Many theologians – from Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist and other sects – have taken issue with the film’s theology as either “problematic” or downright “heretical”. Other religious commentators have been discomfited by the film’s depiction of God as Octavia Spencer (knew it, right?) and the Holy Spirit as Japanese supermodel Sumire.

While the film’s introduction of a Holy Quaternity – say hello to Wisdom (Alice Braga of I Am Legend) – did seem novel, theology and colour-blind casting are the least of this manipulative movie’s problems.

Sam Worthington (Avatar) keeps reverting to his Australian accent as Mackenzie Phillips, an American heartlands family man whose faith is questioned when his youngest daughter, Missy, meets a tragic fate at the hands of a violent paedophile. When Mack receives a mysterious letter from “Papa” (his wife’s nickname for God), inviting him to the shack where he last saw his daughter’s bloodied clothes, he takes a gun just to be on the safe side.

Once there, however, he encounters cool carpenter dude Jesus (Israeli star Avraham Aviv Alush), who leads Mack off the snowy mountain and towards a sun-drenched, well-appointed cabin in paradise, where Papa (Spencer) bakes pies, and the Holy Spirit gardens. Later Papa transforms into the veteran Native American actor Graham Greene (Twilight), adding Mormon top-notes to an already muddled prayer therapy session.

And then they talk. For hours. Mack rages against God for allowing the death of his daughter, until he is bombarded into submission by mind-body-soul-speak. As are we.

This scenario is no more improbable than anything in Wonder Woman or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, but, despite a great turn by Spencer and pretty cinematography, it refuses to conform to anything like three acts. There is, moreover, something discombobulating about the notion that the suffering hero needs to let bygones be bygones.

Perhaps there are Christians who will appreciate The Shack’s Oprahfied universal heaven, wherein no bad deed goes punished. But it made us pine for the Book of Job God to spitefully hurl leviathans and behemoths.