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The Shack: A cheap, unchallenging view of faith and devotion

Papa (Octavia Spencer) and Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) in The Shack

Courtesy of Lionsgate

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Shack
Written by
John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton
Directed by
Stuart Hazeldine
Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer and Tim McGraw

When Martin Scorsese's recent religious-historical epic, Silence, tanked at the box office earlier this year, film critic Nick Pinkerton tweeted, "America is a very Christian nation, except for when that Christianity asks you to do hard stuff."

Silence is a challenging magnum opus that poses pointed questions about faith and devotion. It is a film about Christianity as a deeply rooted belief system – a totalizing worldview, and not just a cheap identity on par with being a Cowboys fan or preferring Sierra Mist to Mountain Dew. And the United States doesn't like its Christianity to be challenging. It likes it to be comforting: to offer a de facto sense of righteousness and rectitude, to prop up a mission of spiritual Manifest Destiny and offer believers a totally bogus sense of being "the good guys." Dime-store believers don't want demanding, sometimes-excruciating religious films like Silence – they want stuff like The Shack.

Based on the sleeper bestseller by Canadian author William P. Young, The Shack offers an enlightening – if dispiriting – vantage on contemporary, non-denominational Christianity. Sam Worthington (barely trying to muffle his Australian accent) stars as Mack Phillips, an all-American Christian family man struggling with his faith following the abduction and death of his precocious young daughter. Crippled by depression and guilt, Mack has all but drawn himself into total isolation when he receives a mysterious invitation to "the shack" (the rickety cabin where his daughter was murdered) signed by someone named Papa (his family's nickname for God).

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Encouraged by his gun-toting pastor and best friend (country music superstar Tim McGraw), Mack braves a winter storm and returns to the scene of the crime. There, the snowdrifts melt, revealing a CGI-augmented Edenic landscape. Amid the splendour is a cozy cottage housing Papa (a.k.a. God, played by Octavia Spencer), Jesus (played by Aviv Alush) and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit, Sumire Matsubara).

After a brief settling in period, the Holy Trinity grind Mack through a gruelling weekend gamut of spiritual team-building exercises, including mending a garden with the Holy Ghost and sprinting across a lake with Jesus Christ Himself. One need not be atheistic or otherwise areligious to find this stuff moronic. Such large-scale, box office dominating Christian blockbusters (see also: the God's Not Dead movies) are so sappy and sermonizing that they constitute their own subgenre of cinematic camp.

Moreover, the vision they offer of religious belief is downright demoralizing (not to mention untraditional, even borderline heretical, in its interpretation of the scriptures). Instead of faith being just that, i.e. a deep-rooted belief in higher powers and the redemptive potential of love and forgiveness that is made stronger by virtue of it being unprovable, it's degraded and stripped of any spiritual potency. After all, there's no need to "believe" in anything if you're being divinely visited by God Almighty. It would be like believing that 2 + 2 = 4 or that the pompous psychiatrist on Cheers was named Frasier. It requires literally nothing.

While The Shack may score a few minor progressivist political points for casting a conspicuously Middle Eastern actor as Jesus, or having God played by a black woman (and later, a Native Canadian man, in a welcome appearance by Graham Greene), such flourishes offer little salvation for a film this trite. The Shack is essentially an overlong montage of stock New Testament discourses narrowly targeted at the sort of armchair Christians whose faith comes easy, and whose lazily won belief barely even needs to be vindicated.

For faithful and faithless alike, The Shack may seem stupid, laughable, blasphemous, poorly acted and totally banal. And yet there are probably worse things than being told it's righteous to forgive and that love is good. As Andrew Garfield's spiritually shaken Father Rodrigues puts it in Scorsese's Silence, surveying newly Christianized Japanese peasants drawn clamouring over gaudy graven images of Christ, "I worry they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how can we deny them?"

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