THE SHACK, based on the best-selling novel of the same name, is a well-meaning and heartfelt film that dares to tackle a fiendishly tricky question. If God is good and loves us all, why does She allow evil in the world? Couched in parables and riddles, and for all its gentleness of spirit, it arrives at the same conclusion as the Book of Job. That would be, and I’m paraphrasing, who are you with your limited perceptions to question it?
Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) may not have experienced Job’s trials, but growing up with a violent father, and losing a precious child as an adult, has caused him to lose his already iffy faith in Papa, as his devoted wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell) calls the supreme deity. It’s created a rift in their already stressed family, and so when Mack finds a note in his mailbox from God Almighty inviting him for a weekend stay at the eponymous remote mountain retreat, he suspects it’s from his child’s killer rather than the Lord. This even after his neighbor (Tim McGraw), who also narrates the film, points out that there are no tracks in the snow around Mack’s mailbox. With Nan and the children conveniently away for the weekend, Mack drives into the mountains for a confrontation. Instead, winter turns to summer, and he encounters miracles and mysteries in the persons of motherly Elousia, aka Papa (Octavia Spencer), an amiable Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and a shiny Sarayu aka The Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara).
Thus begins the questioning by Mack, the which leads to more questions, such as how all three of these entities are one in the same. The answer to that was the preoccupation of many a theologian through the ages, and, as with so many responses to question in this film, it’s not so much an answer as an assurance that everything is for the best. One wants so much more, and the feeling of being cheated becomes overwhelming amid the distractions of the rustic charm and simplicity of the art direction, and the spectacle of Mack and Jesus not just walking, but also sprinting, on the water of the local lake.
It’s not that there aren’t some wonderful nuggets of metaphysical pondering to be found here about free will, nor that the performances are lacking. Indeed, Spencer is profoundly moving when calling out stupidity with a motherly compassion, or offering a nourishing empathy to the emotional wounds that cause Mack to lash out. Worthington, too, is excellent. Suffering magnificently, yet quietly from Mack’s emotional wounds that have accumulated over the years, yet still evoking a sense of basic decency. Points, too, for making Jesus unmistakably Middle Eastern, and to having him say that religion has a tendency to make slaves of its followers. It’s one of the risks the story takes, including a visit with Wisdom (Alice Braga), who shows Mack the trouble with being judgmental. That it also involves shifting the responsibility of who is to blame for evil in the world undercuts the exercise, alas, not to mention what can charitably called a false equivalency or two.
THE SHACK is both affirming and a tear jerker as it takes Mack on his pilgrim’s progress from despair to acceptance to hope. It’s just never as deep is it needs to be in order to tackle its big central question. The constant reminders that everything is going to be alright, and that Mack, and by extension we, should not worry our pretty little heads about why evil is allowed to exist, has a distinctly condescending tone that for all the pretty colors and noble speeches, and it leaves a sour aftertaste.