In most faith-based movie drama, God is a presence — that’s sort of the whole point — but He’s a barely visible, off-center one. He’s a character who influences events, but that doesn’t mean we see a man in a robe and a white beard. In “The Shack,” though, we really do — or, more precisely, we see Octavia Spencer, aglow with impish insight and beatific grins, as if she was on hand to give a message to Morgan Freeman: There’s a new God in town. Some members of the American Evangelical community are already up in arms over the portrayal, for reasons that are pretending not to be racist. But there’s no defense of their attack: To have any human actor portray God — Freeman, Charlton Heston, Whoopi Goldberg, George Burns — is, by definition, to present a metaphor for the undepictable. So why not Octavia Spencer?
“The Shack,” based on the self-published 2007 blockbuster Christian novel by Canadian author William P. Young, tells the story of a reverential and robust family man, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington), who suffers an unendurable tragedy. On a camping trip with his three children, he plunges into the lake to rescue his son from drowning — and though he saves him, during those crucial moments, when everyone on the camp grounds is gathered around, Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy (Amélie Eve), disappears. It turns out that she’s been abducted by a man the police have been hunting for five years, and before long evidence turns up that she’s been murdered.
The site of the atrocity is a shack in the woods that looks like a cross between the “Amityville” house and some sordid cabin out of “Friday the 13th.” For a while, “The Shack” looks like it’s going to be a queasy piece of Christian disaster porn. It is, sort of, but it’s really a Hallmark-card therapy session, a kind of woodland weekend-retreat self-actualization seminar hosted by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Who come off, in this case, like the featured celebrity guests on a very special episode of “Oprah.”
Mack is no stranger to pain (his father was such a mean drunk that, as a 13-year-old boy, Mack poisoned him), yet he has never lost his faith. His daughter — the one who was killed — grew up calling God by the nickname “Papa.” So Mack is somewhere between skepticism and awe when he pulls a letter out of the mailbox that’s been delivered with no apparent footprints in the snow. (Almost as miraculously, it was written on a typewriter from the ’70s.) The note says that it’s been a while, and that he should drop by the shack. It’s signed “Papa.”
He drops by the shack, which looks like a wintry frozen death scene, but then, just when he’s on the verge of giving up hope, along comes Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) — or, as he comes off in this movie, a really friendly down-to-earth 2017 dude in stylish cropped curls. The snow suddenly — literally — melts away, as Mack is led to the shack: a summery refurbished version, like the bed-and-breakfast of your dreams. (Thou shalt not commit tasteless rustic décor.) It’s here that he meets the deity formerly known as Papa, played by Spencer as an endlessly benevolent matriarch of the universe who bakes biscuits and listens to reggae on her iPod, and whose attention is focused entirely on Mack, even though she’s got a lot on her plate (and I don’t just mean the exquisite breakfasts she presides over). She wants to help Mack heal. But to do that, he’s going to have to leave aside his agony and his anger. He’s going to have to forgive.
The strangest thing about “The Shack,” and the reason it’s finally a so-so movie, is that all the rage and terror and dark-side vengeance that Mack has to learn to transcend is something we’re told about, but we never actually see him mired in it. Sam Worthington, frankly, doesn’t seem like the sort of actor who gives good death wish anyway. He’s a wholesome hunk of earnestness, with no curlicues of anything offbeat. That’s why his movie stardom never worked out, and why he now seems all too right to play the hero of a cautious and soft-edged and squarely photographed bare-bones Christian psychodrama. Evangelicals, of course, are as complicated as anyone else — but unless they’re being portrayed by Robert Duvall, they rarely come off that way in commercial faith-based cinema. They’re like the grown-up heroes of Sunday-school fables.
And that’s just what “The Shack” is: a close encounter with God that’s like an instruction manual for those who prefer their faith mixed with sentimental teardrops. There’s an image of conservative Christianity as living on the opposite shore from Freudian therapy, but “The Shack” demonstrates how the two have merged. Mack must take a journey into the past to heal his demons, and to forgive the original sinner: his father. And he does it with the support of his new trio of counselor peeps: Jesus, the Messiah-as-mensch who teaches him how to walk on water (the movie’s one token supernatural touch); Sarayu, the Holy Ghost, played by the Japanese actress and model Sumira, who seems to be on hand mostly to round out the ethnicity of the cast; and Spencer’s Papa/God, who’s so jolly and benign that she makes the embrace of faith seem like sunshine and lollipops. The movie’s message is, “Have no fear! God truly is right here with you.” All that’s missing is a weekend spa treatment.
“The Shack” has a real chance to connect commercially, because even though its drama is mushy, at heart it’s a bit of a theme-park ride: the movie in which you get to know what it’s like to hang out with God and make friends with Jesus. In life, religion isn’t nearly so reassuring. It’s daunting, and our culture is starved for films that portray religious feeling in a way that’s both reverent and truthful. “The Shack” isn’t one of them; it reduces faith to a kind of spiritual comfort food. But thanks, in part, to movies like this one, maybe that’s what faith is on its way to becoming.