Machine Gun Preacher
Directed by Marc Forster. Starring Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Kathy Baker, Michael Shannon, Madeline Carroll, Souleymane Sy Savane, Grant R. Krause, Reavis Graham, Peter Carey, Barbara Coven. Written by Jason Keller.
Sam Childers, the real-life inspiration behind Machine Gun Preacher, is a fascinating character: an outlaw biker turned born again Christian, Childers has become something of a “Christian mercenary” in Sudan, rescuing children that have been kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army during the country’s two-decade-long civil war. Christian and mercenary may not seem to go hand in hand; the fascinating thing about Childers is his desire to do good, and his conflicting methods of doing so.
Coming on the heels of Childers’ autobiographical novel Another Man’s War, Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher is, unfortunately, even more conflicted than its central protagonist. It’s never really sure how it feels about Childers, and never really sure how to tell his story.
Gerard Butler (with the same kind of determination he brought to Law Abiding Citizen) stars as Childers, just released from prison at the outset of the film. He comes home to find that wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) has rediscovered religion and quit her stripping gig. His biker friends, including Donnie (Michael Shannon) still seem to be in the same places, though: biking, drinking, shooting heroin.
Soon, Childers is back to robbing drug dealers armed with a shotgun, and (in an intense, drug-fueled sequence) he repeatedly stabs a hitchhiker who pulled a knife and dumps the body by the side of the curb. That’s enough, apparently, to get him to reconsider his ways; with Lynn’s help, he finds God, gives up the drugs, sells his bike, and starts his own construction/maintenance business.
Some years later, his life in order and his business doing well, Childers hears about the situation in Sudan and decides that, with his construction skills, he oughta go over and help out. Not long after he gets there, he discovers the true horrors of a civil war: villages raided and massacred, young children kidnapped and forced to fight for Kony’s LRA.
He decides to do more: leaving his wife and teenage daughter (Madeline Carroll) back in Pennsylvania for extended periods of time, he sets up shop in a deserted area, builds an orphanage and a church, and yep – with the help of the good guys, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – he picks up a machine gun and starts blasting away to protect his orphans and rescue others.
Of course, Childers’ story is slightly more complicated; the film hints at this with a female doctor who disapproves of his actions, and a sequence in which Sam ends up killing one of the young boys he set out to help. Do the ends justify the means? While the film appreciates Childers’ intentions, it never fully endorses his actions.
And that’s the real problem with Machine Gun Preacher. It never takes sides, nor does it weigh the options effectively enough for the audience to take sides: it’s a series of muddled right-or-wrong decisions (not just in Sudan, but also in Pennsylvania) that never get the attention they deserve (the always-reliable Shannon is wasted in an underdeveloped subplot). The ultimate irony is that Kony is also fighting in the name of Christianity, but Preacher never goes after that angle.
Similarly, the film seems to be caught between the real-life horror story and the cheap thrills that the title implies – there’s plenty of action (which director Forster, coming off Quantum of Solace, still struggles with), and the framework of the film almost resembles a Death Wish revenge thriller in which we see bad things happen and root for the good guy to take action.
Ultimately, while Machine Gun Preacher is too muddled to be effective, it’s well-made and there are the seeds of a fascinating real-life story; you just might have to dig a little deeper to find it. Stick around during the credits for the best scene in the film, a short clip of the real Childers describing his line of reasoning; here, without the influence of Hollywood melodrama, we can finally draw a real conclusion.
Also opening this week:
- Love (showtimes), a drama from director Jakub Kroner starring Michal Nemtuda, Kristína Svarinská, Jakub Gogál, and Dušan Cinkota. Screening in Czech.
- Labyrint (showtimes), a thriller from Tomáš Houška starring Lucie Vondráčková, Martin Zbrožek, Jan Zadražil. Screening in Czech.
- If Not Us, Who? (showtimes | IMDb), a German period drama starring August Diehl. Screening in German with Czech subtitles.