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The evangelical entertainment 'The Shack' is almost a real movie

Sam Worthington plays a grieving father who scores God herself as a therapist.
The Shack

Sam Worthington has a talk with God (no less than Octavia Spencer) in "The Shack."Jake Giles Netter

‘The Shack’
Director:
Stuart Hazeldine
Stars: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“The Shack” isn’t exactly a subversive Christian entertainment, but consider this: It features a scene right out of the anti-theist classic “The Rapture,” in which our mortal hero (Sam Worthington) angrily accuses God, to God’s face, of letting his daughter die a horrible death. What’s more, the lord’s not some old dude in a white beard; it’s Octavia Spencer, smiling, warm and sometimes dancing to Brenton Wood. Throw in Jesus played by a Middle Eastern actor (Aviv Alush), plus a Holy Spirit that’s as an Asian woman (Sumire Matsubara), and you have a movie that might ruffle the feathers of its target Middle American audience. Surely they won’t look kindly on their divine honchos depicted as non-white, let alone female.

This is a different breed of evangelical cinema. Normally the multiplexes get either studio pictures with name stars that allege proof of God’s existence (“Heaven is for Real,” “Miracles from Heaven”). Other times it’s dirt-cheap, ramshackle missives from the Real America, brandishing epic persecution complexes (the “God’s Not Dead”s, “I’m Not Ashamed”). “The Shack,” meanwhile, isn’t the former till its final minutes and never the latter. It’s a more ambitious and genuinely challenging Jesus movie, putting in the gruntwork of grappling with challenging theological ideas. As such, it winds up sharing a touch more DNA with Martin Scorsese’s brilliant “Silence” than one would expect.

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And yet it’s still not very good. Despite decent production values and a minimum of chintzy TBN F/X, “The Shack” is still shackled to a genre of toxic sincerity, questionable logic and sloppy drama. Growling most of his words like Christian Bale’s Batman, Worthington plays Mack, a goodly churchgoer with a troubled past whose youngest daughter was abducted and brutally murdered by a serial killer. It’s left him a brooding wreck, one who can no longer communicate with his wife and remaining kids. One day he’s mysteriously lured back to the crime scene, where he happens upon three beings. Lucky for us, they don’t waste a lot of time before revealing they’re embodiments of the Holy Trinity. Over the course of a backwoods getaway weekend, God herself gets to play psychologist, helping Mack temper his rage, all while hashing out some of the Big Questions.

Part apologetics tract, part self-help manual, “The Shack” features plenty of God talk, but it’s not the easy, reassuring kind. It understands that pain isn’t easily overcome, and it legitimately wrestles with the idea that an all-knowing, all-loving God would allow such a tragedy to occur. That is, until it doesn’t. Eventually it does provide a made-up answer to that last one, which should baffle any serious apologist — as though this little movie with the guy from “Avatar” had suddenly cleared up some 2,000 years of Christian anguish.

Though it eventually cops out entirely, briefly replacing Spencer with Graham Greene for some reason and throwing ina leftfield did-that-really-happen? head-scratcher it never needed, “The Shack” gets mucho brownie points for rising well above the pitifully low bar of evangelical cinema. It even offers Red Staters such radical notions as forgiving those who do evil, avoiding vengeful thoughts and living in the now, as opposed to dwelling on a past that can’t be changed. It might have been designed to score group sales from megachurches, but “The Shack” winds up sounding downright Buddhist.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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