If Octavia Spencer is God, then Lord, take me to church. A folksy Spencer serving up homemade baked goods is the vision of the divine in “The Shack,” Stuart Hazeldine’s nondenominational, magical realist, faith-based drama, an adaptation of the best-seller by William P. Young. But it’s a dark and windy road to get to that beatific image, delving into the personal history of “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington), a wayward soul who’s been dealt a few bad cards in life, and needs a restorative stay to get right with himself.
Adapted by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Cretton, the story is nested inside a flashback narrated by Tim McGraw’s character, a pastor named Willie, and takes a leisurely, nonlinear path to get to where it’s going. Mack had a rough childhood marred by domestic violence, forging his understanding of God as wrathful, punishing and judgmental. That worldview is exacerbated by the abduction of his youngest daughter, Missy (Amelie Eve), snatched from under his nose during a family camping trip.
Plunged into depression, Mack receives a mysterious invitation in the mail: a note from “Papa” (his wife’s name for God) asking him to a weekend getaway at the shack where his daughter was likely killed. Seeking revenge, or at least some answers, he heads to the woods. There he’s greeted not by a child killer, but by a trio of groovy spiritual teachers in a tropical wooded paradise: God, aka Papa (Spencer); Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush); and The Holy Spirit Sarayu (Sumire). Is this heaven or this is Burning Man?
It’s easy to have some flippant fun with the premise, and it’s needed, because the framing story is profoundly dark and depressing, rendered in the style of a soap opera or TV movie, heavy on the voice-over, the flashbacks, the haunting memories. But once he’s at the God Spa, despite all the hokey walking on water, caves of Wisdom, and magical gardens, the things that Papa, Jesus and Sarayu have to say are pretty profound.
The brand of Christianity on display here is an idealized form of spirituality that’s inclusive, relaxed and open. The film knowingly features a Middle Eastern Jewish Jesus, for heaven’s sake. Faith-based films have been gaining traction in the industry, catering to an underserved audience. While they run the gamut of genre and tone, the presentation of Christian faith remains the same: positive, open, loving, ignoring any messy real-world politics that might be associated with modern Christianity. In this brightened vision, who wouldn’t want to reserve a stay in the God B&B?
Worthington is an apt choice for this role. He’s always been a bit of a blank slate to project onto, a sponge to soak up every life lesson. His Mack feels empty, all the more ready to be filled with the positive vibes he gets from his new friends. The spiritual teachers spend the weekend reiterating to Mack that God doesn’t judge, God only loves, and impressing upon him the importance of forgiveness and compassion so that he can move beyond the tragedy that has left him “stuck” in that shack. Though the dialogue is written with all the finesse of a self-help book, and the visuals are a garish technicolor explosion, there are some nuggets of wisdom that do resonate, regardless of personal belief.