[MOVIE REVIEW]: Machine Gun Preacher
The real Sam Childers has a compelling story. Once a drug dealer and member of a Pennsylvania biker gang, Childers experienced a religious conversion and, since the late 1990s, has become a rather notorious humanitarian with a relentless devotion to helping orphans in the war-torn areas of northern Uganda and southern Sudan.
Childers is not, as you might guess given the title of this film telling his story, your ordinary Christian missionary. While Childers has certainly committed a great amount of time and money in developing an orphanage that houses 200 children and feeds 1,000 daily, Childers has earned well his reputation as Machine Gun Preacher. For years, this region of Uganda and Sudan has been plagued by vicious attacks from a militia led by Joseph Kony known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is believed to be responsible for, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of deaths in the area along with countless rapes, destruction of villages and the kidnapping of children who are then forced into the role of child soldiers.
Childers? Quite simply, he rescues these children by ANY means necessary.
Director Marc Forster has found himself at the helm of several critically acclaimed pics, mostly courtesy of their outstanding performances, such as Monster’s Ball with Halle Berry and Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp. Forster also directed Will Ferrell in his first dramatic role with Stranger Than Fiction, and he’s also responsible for The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. So, it’s not out of the question that Forster could have pulled a magnificent performance out of lead Gerard Butler in a role that allows Butler to tap into both his action hero and good guy personas.
Truthfully, Butler is better here than you might expect as Childers, a gruff go-getter whose devotion to these East African orphans sometimes comes at the cost of his wife, his own children and even his own sobriety. It’s easy to understand why Butler, who also serves as an Executive Producer for the film, was attracted to this project given Butler’s cinematic history of weaving together his action projects with more family friendly fare. At times, Butler is an awful lot like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, though Butler’s forays into family films are usually a bit more substantial thematically.
Whether you agree with his methods or not, and many will have a hard time reconciling Christian values with his belief that violence towards LRA is not just an alternative but an obligation, there’s little denying that Machine Gun Preacher is a story tailor made for the big screen.
There’s a brilliant film trying desperately to rise to the surface of Machine Gun Preacher, but Forster and his screenwriter, Indianapolis native Jason Keller, can’t seem to decide for themselves whether they should legitimize Childers’ ministry or simply glorify a guy who more often than not seems to have a macho messiah complex. Keller’s script, based upon Childers’ own Another Man’s Army, is a wildly uneven collection of dramatic scenes that seem to reinforce Childers’ ongoing addictive behavior more than they do convince of an authentic spiritual conversion.
Of course, a huge part of that problem may very well be Butler himself. While Butler certainly can portray a likable screen presence, he simply has never exhibited emotional range as an actor. With Keller’s scenes, especially early in the film, bouncing from one dramatic set-up to another, Butler’s conversion from rough and tumble biker to faithful family man is utterly unconvincing.
To their credit, on the other hand, Forster and Keller don’t hold back. The early scenes in Machine Gun Preacher are brutally honest in portraying a man whose prison time did little to squelch his hunger for sex, drugs and violence. There’s no question that few films dealing with spiritual conversion have the guts to be this brutally honest, a refreshing authenticity that could have, with another actor in the leading role, been an emotionally powerful experience.
When Childers is released from prison, he finds that his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), and his daughter (Madeline Carroll, Flipped) have found God and that Lynn has quit her job as a stripper for more traditional employment. In a huff, about as close as we get to an emotion with Butler, Childers heads out on his bike to hang with ole’ buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon, wasted in more ways than one here). However, a late night experience that nearly leads to his killing a violent junkie causes Sam to suddenly question his life choices and he heads out to church the next morning with his wife, daughter and mother (Kathy Baker). He accepts Christ, gets baptized and quickly leaves behind his drinkin’ and druggin’ ways for steady work in construction and, eventually, a home in a better neighborhood.
The only thing more dreadful than the pacing in Machine Gun Preacher is the film’s absolute predictability. It doesn’t matter whether Machine Gun Preacher is set in the inner city streets of Pennsylvania or the war-torn fields of Sudan, at virtually every corner you’re going to know exactly what’s going to happen next right up to an ending that provides a semblance of closure for one of Sam’s most traumatic experiences in Sudan but only glosses over the unresolved family issues left behind when he stormed out of the house having decided that providing for the orphanage was more important than saving his own family’s home.
There’s a certain glory in seeing a “human” preacher, a man with an abundance of flaws yet who accomplishes a myriad of great things and who, in ways big and small, manages to turn his life around in dramatic fashion. The real story of Sam Childers is astounding in its dramatic impact and, again even if you disagree with his methods, in the way it testifies that even the most flawed and failed human being can turn life around and make a difference in the world.
Yet, it’s hard to escape the notion in Machine Gun Preacher that even Keller and Forster can’t quite reconcile this larger than life character. While they certainly never condemn Childers, indeed they often greatly admire him, they also never really allow this film to transcend to the point that this type of film is supposed to transcend. When you watch a film like Machine Gun Preacher, you’re supposed to leave the theatre inspired and energized and determined to make your own mark in the wrold. With this film, however, you can’t help but wonder if Childers isn’t simply expressing his addictive behaviors in an entirely different way.
While Butler certainly doesn’t have the emotional range needed to really soar dramatically here, he’s well coupled with the similarly restrained Michelle Monaghan, who is also limited by some of the film’s most stilted and obvious dialogue. Monaghan is one of the few B-list actresses who can handle both comedy and drama, but her persona tends to be fairly quiet and guarded and that suits her marriage with Sam Childers quite nicely. Young Madeline Carroll, who displayed great promise in Rob Reiner’s otherwise awful Flipped, gives a believable performance as the child who loves her father but can’t help but be a bit jealous at his rather extreme efforts on behalf of other children. Michael Shannon is solid in what amounts to a throwaway role, and Kathy Baker is completely wasted here.
It may sound like I’m completely trashing Machine Gun Preacher, yet the 2.5-star rating indicates at least a modest recommendation. It’s not that the film is completely awful, because it’s not. The story itself is compelling and the scenes in Uganda and Sudan are both heart-breaking and awe-inspiring. It’s simply hard to escape the idea that given its story, director and cast, this should have been a much better film. The title, perhaps, is the strongest indication of all that neither Forster nor Keller could really figure out where they were going with this film and, as a result, the film plays out like a series of dramatic scenes going no place in particular.
Furthermore, Keller’s timid script never really addresses with any conviction the moral dilemmas that exist in abundance throughout the film that could easily define Childers with far more certainty than any of his supposedly heroic gestures. What really drives Childers? While anyone familiar with his story knows that he and his wife Lynn remain together, there’s only a few moments in Machine Gun Preacher that make us understand exactly why. How does Childers himself reconcile the violence he has done with the violence he continues to do or, for that matter, how does he reconcile himself and the “evil” Joseph Kony (If you know anything about LRA, however, there are HUGE differences)? How does Childers reconcile a choice involving his longtime friend that ends dramatically?
The unresolved issues go on and on and on.
It’s fine, perhaps even admirable, that Forster and Keller don’t ultimately take sides but instead allow the story of Sam Childers to come fully alive in Machine Gun Preacher.Yet, by refusing to delve deeper into his powerful story they have reduced it to not much more than the film’s B-movie title. Machine Gun Preacher is a decent film based upon a compelling story, but you can’t help but think it could have been so much more.
Originally posted October 20, 2011.