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Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Shack

The Shack is a movie with its heart in the right place, but its brain is a bit harder to locate.  It's not that I disagreed with the film's message, which is hopeful and uplifting.  Heck, I didn't even disagree with the cast, all of whom are doing good work here.  What I did disagree with is the movie's desire to spell out everything through overly long and talky scenes.  These moments make up a majority of the film, dragging down what could have been a very powerful film.

As the film opens, we're introduced to the Phillips family.  They come across as your average, happy clan, although patriarch Mack (Sam Worthington) does have a haunted past concerning his alcoholic father who used to abuse both him and his mom.  He does have a loving wife (Radha Mitchell), and three children who are as wholesome as all get-out.  His two older kids, Josh and Kate (Gage Munroe and Megan Charpentier), are the kind of good natured teens that any parent would dream of, and probably only exist in movies.  Youngest daughter Missy (Amelie Eve) is bright, curious and cute as a button.  One day in late summer, Mack takes the kids on a camping trip, while mom stays behind to do some work.  During the trip, while Josh and Kate are out rowing in a canoe, there is an accident that nearly causes the kids to drown.  Mack heads into the water to rescue them, leaving Missy alone momentarily.  He manages to save the two children, but when he returns to land to look for Missy, she has completely vanished.

The police are called to investigate, and after days of intense searching, they think they have found a lead.  A suspicious truck has been found abandoned near a shack in the woods.  However, the only thing that can be found within the building are traces of blood and Missy's discarded clothes.  Thus begins the "Great Sadness" (as the movie calls it) for the Phillips family, as everyone deals with their grief in different ways.  While his wife turns to God (whom she calls "Papa") for guidance, Mack shuts down completely out of guilt about leaving his youngest behind.  Teenage daughter Kate isn't doing very well, either.  But one day, Mack finds a mysterious letter waiting in his mailbox.  It's apparently been sent by "Papa", and tells him that he should return to the shack in the woods.  Mack isn't sure what to think of any of this, and wonders if whoever is responsible for his daughter's death is possibly toying with him somehow.  Regardless, he decides to venture out alone to the woods where his personal nightmare began.

Returning to the shack, he encounters three people who welcome him with open arms.  These characters are supposed to represent the religious "Father" "Son" and "Holy Spirit", and take the form of a black woman who refers to herself as "Papa" (Octavia Spencer), her son Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter (Avraham Avuv Alush), and an Asian woman named Sarayu (Japanese actress and model Sumire Matsubara), who is often seen at work in a magnificent garden.  The Shack is based on a best selling novel by William P. Young, which apparently drew a lot of criticisms from some in the Christian community for its depiction of the Holy Trinity.  The film stays true to these depictions, and honestly, it's the most compelling part of the film.  I do applaud the filmmakers for taking this chance with its casting, especially the casting of Avraham Avuv Alush as Jesus, who not only gives the best performance in the film, but creates a different yet compelling interpretation.  He's not stoic like we expect, but kind of fun.  Let's just say he likes to make good use out of that whole "walk on water" thing.

These three have appeared before Mack to help him forgive, get over his own guilt, and to accept them in his life.  While this idea is fascinating in and of itself, the movie misses the potential by a wide margin.  Instead of debating or talking about anything truly meaningful, we're treated to scene after scene where the characters talk to Mac about forgiveness, not judging others, and letting go of your own past and guilt.  This could have been effective, and you can see potential everywhere, but the script chooses to be wordy and dragged out.  This is a well-meaning and well-acted movie that is brought down by a script that simply doesn't know when to stop.  Scenes go on long after we have gotten the point, or they are so melodramatic as to feel like we are being struck over the head by its messaging.  This is a movie that cries out for a careful and honest touch, and The Shack ends up bludgeoning us.

And yet, you can see potential in just about every scene or idea that the film presents.  There are some dream sequences where Mack witnesses Missy being carried away by a mysterious man, her screaming for help, and no matter how fast he runs, he cannot catch up to the shadowy figure dragging his daughter away.  These moments are effectively creepy, and feel like the kind of dream a grieving parent would have.  However, for every scene that does work, there are just as many that do not because the filmmakers don't employ subtlety.  It doesn't take long for the movie to feel dragged out, especially since certain scenes seem to run on much longer than they should.  The characters basically spend a good part of time talking to each other about forgiveness and moving on, and this wouldn't be so bad if the movie could think of new angles for the characters to discuss.  But, it often seems to be hitting the same notes over and over.

There is also some just plain odd choices that the movie makes, such as making a neighbor of the Phillips (played by Tim McGraw) the narrator of the film.  Never mind that this is Mack's story, and he should be the one telling it, but it seems like a desperate attempt to add substance to what is essentially an unnecessary character who has nothing to do with anything that happens in the film.  Of course, the obvious question becomes how does he know about everything that happened to Mack when he went on his spiritual journey?  This also makes him come across as being bizarrely invested in the lives of his neighbors, much more so than he probably should be.  If only the filmmakers worked so hard at making the audience invested in these characters.

The Shack simply feels like a missed opportunity.  It raises some interesting points and has some good ideas, but they all get sidelined by the script.  I have not read the novel, so I can't tell how accurate the film is.  All I can comment on is the movie itself, and when it comes to that, I can say with all confidence that it never comes across as being as emotional or as powerful as it could have been.

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