Even for an earnest, schmaltzy faith-based melodrama, Stuart Halzeldine’s The Shack is pretty shameless in its goal of wringing moviegoers’ tears out of the death of an innocent child. It’s one of those movies where you’ll either decide to give in right away and sob for two hours straight or opt to fight it while your resentment slowly simmers to a rolling boil. Based on William Paul Young’s bestselling novel, the film stars Avatar’s Sam Worthington as Mack, a lapsed churchgoer, devoted husband, and doting father of three kids. During a camping trip with his children, Sam’s youngest is abducted and murdered. Afterwards, he’s a devastated shell of his former self, inconsolable and unreachable by his adoring wife (Radha Mitchell) and best friend (Tim McGraw)—both of whom find the spiritual balm they need in God. But Mack gave up looking for answers in the Bible long ago. He’s flying solo through life, white-knuckling it without a spiritual copilot.
Wrestling with survivor’s guilt and wallowing in grief, Mack receives a mysterious note in his mailbox from “Papa,” the name his wife gives to God. Papa is inviting him to the shack deep in the woods where his daughter was killed. Is this a prank from someone with a sick sense of humor? Or could it be the real deal? Mack is emotionally desperate enough to head up to the snowy woods and find out. Once there, he meets a trio of divine Christian figures who take him to a beautifully appointed lake house: There’s Papa (Octavia Spencer, all folksy sun tea and smiles); her son (Avraham Aviv Alush, apparently playing Jesus as a strapping Semitic outdoorsman); and the Holy Spirit (Japanese actress Sumire, who radiates beatific, soothing calm). They’ve summoned Mack to answer his questions, settle his doubts, and soothe his soul. But really, more than anything, to allow him to forgive himself.
As he walks the heavenly grounds of what looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life, Mack cycles through emotions. He’s skeptical, he’s angry, he’s confused, he’s resigned, and ultimately, he’s at peace. He finally gets right with God, convinced that his dead child is happy in the next life. It’s hard to argue with spiritual movies that are as well-intentioned as The Shack is. There are a few moments that are genuinely touching and heartwarming enough to put a lump in even the most reluctant moviegoer’s throat. But there’s also something about the film that leaves a sour aftertaste. Its answers are offered up too easy. They’re too spoon-fed and trite. It makes light of the grueling process of grieving for a loved one. Just have faith, the movie says, and you too will be at peace. All that’s missing in the film’s bucolic spiritual way-station is a cornfield. Don’t worry, though, there’s more than enough corn elsewhere in the movie.