‘The Shack’ will entertain, and puzzle, many

By Gary Clift

The storm didn’t make it any easier to explain Stuart Hazeldine’s new film “The Shack.” While our hero Mack, played by Anglo-Aussie Sam Worthington of “Avatar” fame, was in a cave chatting with the embodiment of Wisdom (Alicia Braga from “I Am Legend”), a heavy but fast-moving spring storm crossed through town. Here’s another weakness of the new theater in the mall—it isn’t insulated from outdoor sounds.

What I picked up of Wisdom’s lesson didn’t sound all that convincing, forcing the flannel-shirt-wearing seeker to consider who he would save and damn if he had to choose between his surviving children. A younger daughter had been killed, the movie said, though it didn’t confirm it, by a serial murderer operating in a national forest in Oregon.

“The Shack” is based on a big-selling book of the same title, written (with help) by William P. Young. The book and the movie would qualify as “religious” in the most general sense. But the story and treatment are both more sophisticated and better-supported than is the ordinary Easter season film.

I mean, consider the cast. Hazeldine has managed to attract known actors who are otherwise in demand. Octavia Spencer is in the hit “Hidden Figures” which is still running in a lot of theaters. After her turn in “The Help,” she’s gotten lots of decent work.

Graham Greene is another actor lots of people know by sight, somebody who keeps busy, and somebody who has been important in big films, including “The Green Mile,” “Dances With Wolves,” and one of the “Die Hard” pictures. I’ve been enjoying his stint as Malechi, the ultimate villain, in the “Longmire” TV series.

Tim McGraw is a big Country singer and the son of Phillies pitcher Tug. Radha Mitchell, another Aussie, has been busy doing action and horror movies recently, but she’ll always be remembered as the lead in “Pitch Black.”

In this case they are telling a complicated (sometimes unnecessarily so), original, philosophically challenging, beautifully- photographed story that isn’t always told as well as one could want. For example, is the shack where the FBI finds evidence Mac’s daughter has been killed the same building where his abusive father used to drink? Is it a decrepit version of the house where the mourning Mac stays in eternal springtime with three incarnations of God?

Does Mac the child actually poison his father? This would be a more significant question except that all the stuff about Mac’s childhood (or is it his friend Willie’s?) isn’t really required by the telling of the main story.

This is what happens in the body of the movie: Mac’s little daughter disappeared from a campground while her father was in the lake saving his two older kids from drowning when their boat capsized. There is a large scale search. In the end the authorities only find her red dress and some blood stains.

Six months later Mac is suffering from guilt and grief so much that he has distanced himself from church experiences he used to enjoy. One snowy day, before there are any footprints on the lawn or the street,he finds a note to him from God asking him to visit that shack in the woods.

He arrives, finds the place empty, and considers suicide. But, distracted, he walks a little way in the woods and meets a casually friendly young man who seems to know him and who invites him home to warm up. The first turn in their path takes them out of the snowy woods and into shirt sleeve weather and flowering plants.

At the young man’s house, Mac meets a woman he knew from his childhood (Spencer). She, the young man, and a young woman who also resides there are each are happy and calm. They each teach Mac a lesson. Then he is sent into a cave where he has his conversation with Braga. And soon he will meet Greene, who will take him through the hardest parts of his recovery. The section with Greene is well made and emotionally effective.

Parts of the teaching sections are fairly nebulous. But “The Shack” is a movie that finds new and contemporary ways to replicate New Testament teachings. Lots of “Christian” films will only please committed evangelicals. “The Shack” will entertain, and sometimes puzzle, a much wider audience.

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