Written by Kyle Hughes
“The Shack” feels like a book adaptation movie in the worst possible way. There is plenty of symbolism and philosophy, but it’s devoid of the humanity it needs to make the presented ideas feel like anything more than inspirational refrigerator magnets. “The Shack’s” biggest problem is its characters: Mack, his children and the holy trinity.
Sam Worthington stars as Mack, a father of three, a survivor of an abusive father, and a man who loses his youngest daughter. That’s it. Viewers don’t get the small details that are paramount in a tragic story’s foundation. Without these, Mack is not relatable enough for his pain to matter. He has the same distance and haunted demeanor when he’s at church, camping with his kids and after his daughter is taken.
His children are much the same. They feel like the product of a holiday card think-tank. They simply sing campfire songs, beg their dad for stories and correct him when he misquotes scripture. After their younger sister, Missy, is killed, the siblings spend the rest of the film wearing dark clothing and moping. Essentially, they are set pieces to show contrast before and after Missy is gone.
Missy should be the most likable and endearing, but she isn’t. She doesn’t feel genuine, so there is no reason to care about her death or Mack’s struggle to cope.
The only characters that do feel genuine are God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. But this is the issue. It’s surprising that these celestial beings are so human. They make it all the more clear how weak our human characters are.
God is played by Octavia Spencer, and she gives this performance her all. In between cryptic sayings she can be found baking pies, drinking tea and sun-bathing. In a single scene where Mack asks her why she left his daughter to die, she goes from cheerfully rolling out dough to hurt and in tears, embodying a wave of strong, motherly love that wants nothing more than to wash away her child’s pain.
Jesus, played by Avraham Aviv Alush, is just as warm, but the fact that he is Christ doesn’t consume his character. Rather than talking strictly about life and being a good person, he talks about fishing and is usually doing some kind of chore around the shack. The Holy Ghost (Sumire Matsubara) isn’t merely the breath of life floating around and glinting in the sun. She is down in the dirt of her garden, weeding it and feeding it with the tears she has collected from Man’s suffering.
Mack’s healing shouldn’t come in the form of grand tests, but through tasks that help him remember his happiness and help him process what happened to his child. The movie does attempt these tasks but always makes them far grander than they need to be. From walking on water to weeding the garden to journeying up a long mountain trail, these all have symbolic qualities in a story. However, the same issues that make the characters flat, also make these symbols poetic eyewash.
“The Shack” should be a powerful story about healing. It has all the warm lighting, determined music and dramatic set pieces to explore and learn from human pain. The movie seems to think that combined those aspects with a few quotable lines are enough to resonate, but it isn’t. Character depth is neglected and because of that, its emotions feel plastic and its philosophy empty. A story about the joy, the mystery and the sorrow of being human shouldn’t feel that way at all.