In 2007, William Paul Young captured not only the hearts of faithful millions, but garnered controversy and criticism with his debut novel, THE SHACK. Written by Young at age 50, THE SHACK began as a Christmas gift for his children. Writing over the course of months on his daily train commutes to and from work, on completing his writing, he stopped at an Office Depot and photocopied 15 copies. (The story of Young and the writing of the book itself could be a film.) As friends and family read THE SHACK, they saw its vision and its gifts, pushing Young forward towards a book deal and publication. On the New York Times best-seller list for 70 weeks, and with more than 25 million copies sold, it was only a matter of time before THE SHACK moved from the printed page to the big screen where we now find it, directed by Stuart Hazeldine with script adaptation by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton.
EXCLUSIVE LISTEN: Author William Paul Young talks about the book versus film adaptation of THE SHACK.
Taking us on an uplifting spiritual journey, THE SHACK is the story of a grieving father, Mack Phillips. Suffering a family tragedy, Mack spirals downward with a loss of an already tenuous faith, questioning how a kind and merciful God could torment he and his family with the tragedy that has occurred. Compounding Mack’s pain is his wife Nan’s unwavering belief in God, placing a great divide between them.
Mack gives outward appearances that although sadder and more introverted and reserved than usual, life is going on as per usual; that is until a mysterious letter is placed in his mailbox in the midst of a blizzard. With no footprints to indicate any type of delivery was made, Mack accuses his best friend and neighbor Willie of pulling a prank. Willie, a deacon in their church denies the accusation but is himself curious about the letter and the sender. With instructions to go “to the shack” hidden deep in the Oregon wilderness, Willie offers to go with Mack to investigate. But when morning comes for the two to strike out, Mack takes off, leaving Willie behind.
Finally arriving at the snow covered and long abandoned shack, Mack flies into a rage of pain and anger. But as he sets out to head back to his car, he meets a young man heading to what must be another cabin in the woods. On invitation, and out of curiosity, Mack follows the young man. Suddenly, the snow is gone and Mack finds himself walking a path in a sun-drenched forest laden with flowers and beauty. And then he and the young man come upon a cabin where he meets a young woman and a more mature African-American woman who goes by the name Papa.
As Mack slowly discovers, these three individuals are much more than who and what they appear, but how are they connected to the mysterious letter.
EXCLUSIVE LISTEN: Author William Paul Young talks about the genesis of and his approach to writing THE SHACK.
As with Young’s book, THE SHACK follows through with the metaphor of what the shack represents – the place inside of each of us where we store addictions, hide secrets, hide pain, and steal parts of ourselves away from the world. For Young, the significance of THE SHACK is the understanding that one must return to “the shack” and all those places in which an individual is broken in order to heal. Screenwriters Fusco, Lanham and Cretton adhere to that metaphor and philosophy with their screenplay adaptation. Essentially a parable at its core, like the book, the film challenges traditional Christian viewpoints, notably in the visual interpretation of God. Here, God the Father takes on human form as a slightly overweight African-American woman known as “Papa” played by Octavia Spencer and briefly by Graham Greene. Jesus is Middle Eastern and the Holy Spirit an Asian woman. Biblical touchstones such as Jesus walking on water judiciously pop up throughout the film, but are told and shown with a twist.
As for the story and the film overall, not only will fans of the book love the film, but going beyond the Christian faith-based community, there is some balance and a sense of greater understanding that should resonate with a broad audience be they religious or not. At its most base, THE SHACK expounds the ideals that God is love, believe and you shall be saved. While the first third of the film drags a bit and doesn’t feel cohesive (the biggest problem being the chemistry between Sam Worthington and Radha Mitchell), once Mack goes to “the shack” and ultimately the cabin by the lake, the film and the story take shape. Appreciated is that the film doesn’t just give in to “God will save you if you believe”. Doubt is a key part of the storyline and is well developed. Winning over Mack, however, feels a bit too easy. Miracles are a bit overwhelming and it is doubtful that the faithless would be that quick to “come to Jesus.” But again, the messaging is strong, effective and while touching for the faithful, will touch the faithless as well. Another aspect which falls a bit short is a backstory involving Mack’s childhood and his relationship with his father. Nebulous is an understatement.
Never has there been a more perfect casting of God than in the form of Octavia Spencer. Her very presence is the embodiment of love and kindness. Forgetting the comical spoofs of God that have been done on film over the years and looking at the only folks brave enough to tackle the job, namely George Burns and Morgan Freeman and a VO by Ron Perlman, Spencer is perfection. Warmth and homespun wisdom and joy emanate from her and the screen, adding a level of believability to even those of little or no faith. Spencer is THE reason to see THE SHACK.
EXCLUSIVE LISTEN: Author William Paul Young talks about Octavia Spencer as God.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Sam Worthington who is woefully miscast. Speaking barely above a whisper as a means to try and hide his accent, he fails miserably with his Aussie accent popping up in varying degrees of strength so as to be beyond disconcerting. Had the backstory been with Mack growing up outside of the United States and Oregon area and then coming to America, the accent wouldn’t be as distracting, but with nothing to substantiate this in and out vocal accent, it detracts from the film. Compounding this is Worthington’s lack of chemistry with Radha Mitchell who plays Mack’s wife Nan. Having said that, however, once we get to the beauty and glory of God’s cabin by the lake, Worthington’s performance improves dramatically, particularly when paired with Aviv Alush’s Jesus. There is where we see great growth in character and performance.
And speaking of Aviv Alush, another wonderful casting. No one can ever complain that THE SHACK has forsaken God’s love of all his children and the idea of diversity by casting someone who is not the stereotypical blonde-haired, blue-eyed Christ. Israeli, soft-spoken with warm eyes, Alush captivates and draws one into the story with a quiet strength.
Tim McGraw is ideal as Mack’s best friend Willie, although he seems to have gotten the short shrift on screen time. One glaring shortcoming in the story construct involves McGraw’s Willie. An early scene with Mack and Willie talking about the mysterious letter prompts a conversation about what Mack might find there. Willie, a man of faith, almost jokingly says maybe he’ll see God there. Yet, after an event which occurs late in the third act finds Willis scoffing at Mack’s sudden faith and claim that God was at “the shack. A disconnect for the faithful and the character.
Scene stealing is Amelie Eve who is cute as cute can be as the Phillipses youngest daughter Missy. Standout is Alice Braga as “Wisdom” in a very timely and topical sequence in the film applicable to our world today. Adding to the gravitas of the ideals of wisdom and judgment which play out through Braga, is Declan Quinn’s cinematography layered with the VFX of sepia newsreel footage of the world.
Declan Quinn’s cinematography is beautiful, especially when Mack arrives at the charming lakeside cabin in the woods, complete with its own bounteous and colorful Garden of Eden. Lensing in the garden is some of the most beautiful in the entire film, celebrating the bright yellow sun and the rich use of natures color scheme. Quinn showcases the magnificent interior and exterior production design of Joseph Nemec to breathtaking result. Not to be overlooked, however, is the beauty and purity of the white on white snow and then white and grey metaphoric contrasts at “the shack”. Absolutely gorgeous. The nighttime skies, albeit a tad overdone, are beauteous as well, although all done through VFX.
When it comes to VFX, some may call it a bit hokey or campy, others call it fun, terrific scenes with Jesus and Mack “walking on water”.
A quest to discover faith or find answers to get one through the hard times, or merely a film to entertain you for two hours, THE SHACK tackles the issues shared by all – tragedy, loss, shame, redemption, forgiveness and love. But be warned, God won’t be drying your eyes at the end of this film. You’ll need to bring your own tissues.
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
Written by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Cretton adapted from THE SHACK by William Paul Young
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Sam Worthington, Radha Mitchell, Graham Greene, Alice Braga, Tim McGraw, Aviv Alush