Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Shack Review

Easter is a bit on the late side of things this year as it doesn't come until April 16, but nevertheless February through March is the time of year that we usually get at least a few religious-themed movies hoping to take advantage of the season and almost without fail they are very polarizing. On one side of things, professional movie critics almost always pan religious movies as they see them as religious propaganda and for some reason that is always considered a bad thing no matter what. If it has anything to do with faith, then critics will pan it. On the other side of things, there's also a lot of religious people that will automatically praise these films no matter what. To heck with actual storytelling, acting and plot, if it tries to preach a sermon, then it is automatically a great movie. Then you have me. As a religious person and someone who likes reviewing movies, I try to be a voice of reason. Yes, I like myself a good, faith-inspiring movie, but I like one that's done right. Good intentions doesn't always cut it for me. So now we have "The Shack," which currently holds a 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes to go along with an "A" CinemaScore and an 87 percent on the audience portion of Rotten Tomatoes. The polarization has happened again. So here I am.

In order to accurately talk about this movie, I do need to dive into some minor spoilers. I won't reveal how it ends, but certain things that happen in the first two-thirds of the movie need to be discussed. These are things that, for the most part, were hidden from the advertising. And probably for good reason. This is a really strange premise that goes in places that makes you about as confused as our main character is through most of it. And I need to bring these strange things up in order to do this review justice. If you want absolutely no spoilers and you like religious movies, then know that despite how strange this is, I do think it has a good payoff and is thus better than many of the awful religious movies that do come out, like the "God's Not Dead" movies and everything that has been made by the Kendrick brothers ("War Room," "Fireproof," "Courageous"). If you want more of an explanation than that and you don't mind me detailing this plot, then let's continue. The basic outline of this plot is that a father has recently gone through a horrific experience where his daughter was kidnapped and murdered in a shack in the mountains. A year or so later, he gets a letter in the mail from God asking him to come to this shack to have a chat because it's been a while.

Given how heavy this subject matter is, I went in thinking that this could only go one of two different ways. Either it's going to present a good message on how to deal with grief or it could end up being super insensitive and unintentionally offensive. Many religious Christian movies, believe it or not, take the angle that anything bad that happens to people happens because they weren't faithful. Then they try to tell people that if you turn to God, all of your problems will be immediately solved. This paints a black and white picture of Christianity that I think is very harmful because life is a lot more gray than that. Sometimes bad things happen to good people even when they did nothing to deserve that. That's the premise of this movie. A good man who has tried to do his best to be a good husband and a good father goes through the tragedy of having his youngest get kidnapped and murdered. Because of that, he starts to struggle and question God. "If you exist, God, then why did you let my daughter die like this?" That's a dang good question that many people in life ask. If they were to take the "You weren't faithful enough" route, I would've been ready to trash this movie. Thankfully they didn't. They actually take the good route and have a pretty decent answer to this question.

The problem here is that the movie requires a lot of patience before it gets there. And these are where I give the necessary minor plot spoilers. First off, while the acting in the movie is serviceable, they don't do a great job at selling the grief of the situation. I hate to compare everything to "Manchester by the Sea," but that's become my new gold standard when it comes to grief-stricken movies and Sam Worthington doesn't shine a light to Casey Affleck when it comes to him selling this character who blames himself, and in this instance God, for what has happened. And he's not quite broken enough given what happened. And the actual kidnapping sequence doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Another comparison here would be to the many "Criminal Minds" episodes I've watched. We have the teenage daughter and the teenage son in a canoe on the lake. For some reason the teenage daughter decides to stand up in the canoe and call attention to her Dad. This tips the canoe and traps teenage boy in the water, which causes father to jump in the lake to save him. That's a fine idea, but executed fairly poorly. It didn't make sense for the teenage daughter to do that and the actress didn't do a great job at selling that. Then the rest of the sequence is fairly predictable.

Predictable in the sense that once the dad leaves to rescue his son, you know the youngest daughter is going to be kidnapped because this is actually a flashback sequences that has a ton of foreshadowing. The whole ride up to the campground is spent on the father telling her a legend of an Native American girl that died and the daughter the night before asks a lot of questions if she is going to have to die. The bigger issue, though, is that this specific family isn't the only one at this campground. There's several families there and thus the young daughter is not exactly left alone. If some crazy child abductor were in their presence, this wouldn't have been the opportune time to kidnap the little girl and I don't know how he would've anticipated this exact moment that happened out of pure luck. Yeah, this is me being super picky due to how much "Criminal Minds" I have watched, but if you are going to setup a depressing movie that includes a kidnapping sequence, the kidnapping scene should be done done well and the grief of the characters should be more believable. That way when you portray this father talking to God in the mountains, the lessons taught in the mountains would have a much stronger impact. As is, this setup wasn't bad, but it also could've been executed better.

All that said, that is not the weird part of the movie. That was just the poorly setup "Criminal Minds" style of introduction to the meat of the movie. And no, we learn nothing about this child abductor for the rest of the movie. The movie leaves that part of the movie hanging. In their defense, they weren't trying to be a crime drama. They were trying to be a faith-based about how to deal with pain and grief. But I still left slightly disappointed that we didn't explore that aspect of the movie further and watch the police or FBI solve this kidnapping case. Instead we have our father, whose name is Mack, get a letter from God in his mailbox. After debating what he should do, he decides to go with his neighbor to the shack, but at the last second, he ends up stealing his neighbor's truck and going on his. That didn't make any sense. If this were a taunting message left by the kidnapper, why do this alone? Especially when your neighbor wants to come with you? Anywho, Mack finally arrives at the shack and finds Jesus, who is played by an Israeli actor (kudos there), that leads him to this summer paradise in the middle of winter where God resides. God in this instance, is played by the one and only Octavia Spencer. Yes, you read that right. God in this movie is a black female.

Not only is God played by Octavia Spencer, but we also have The Holy Spirit there played by a Japanese actress, singer and model named Sumire. Jesus is the closest we get to the actor actually looking like Jesus. As I said, he is played by an Israeli actor, which I found cool. He has short hair and a short beard, but I was fine with that. Better than most portrayals. It's having Octavia Spencer and Sumire playing God and The Holy Spirit that tripped me out. Mack was super confused at everything that was happening and quite frankly so was I. Granted, God comes in the form of Octavia Spencer because Mack had a lot of daddy issues growing up. His dad was very abusive to him and his mom and I think the movie inferred that Mack put poison in his dad's alcohol and killed. But that's not super clear. So God decides to come to him in the form of a woman instead. And this setting is where most of our movie takes place, so I actually haven't spoiled much. I just detailed the setup of the movie and revealed the movie's big surprise with Octavia Spencer being God. Granted Octavia Spencer did a great job at playing God as did our other two playing Jesus and The Holy Spirit. It's just not what I was expecting and it threw me off for a while until I managed to accept it.

That's why I said this movie requires patience. The intro to this movie is like a poorly done "Criminal Minds" episode that doesn't make much sense when you think about it and had way too much foreshadowing and not enough shock value. Once this happens, our main actors don't sell the grief as much, thus the impact at the end isn't as powerful when he goes to the mountains to learn from Octavia Spencer as God. If you give the movie time, though, and accept the weird things that are happening, this does have a good payoff that didn't feel preachy to me, but rather told a good message on how to deal with grief and pain. Yes, bad things happen to good people, but we shouldn't let the pain consume our life and destroy our family. It's a natural thing to want to blame God for the bad things that happen in the world, but we also have to learn that God allows evil people to do evil things because they have their agency. There's also a great message here about forgiveness that I thought was done well. I won't tell you how these messages were taught and what happens to Mack during this stay with God or what he does afterwards, but I left with an overall positive feeling towards this movie despite its flaws in storytelling and filmmaking. Thus I will give "The Shack" a 7/10.

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