Heavily armed and born again
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sep 30, 2011
From its unfortunate title, "Machine Gun Preacher" sounds like one of those B movies based on a graphic novel - about a disillusioned and emotionally damaged man of the cloth, say, who roams a desolate wasteland dispatching demons with the squeeze of a trigger. The good news is it isn't that movie. The bad news is it's almost as two-dimensional.
Inspired by the true story of Sam Childers, a hell-raising biker who found religion, abandoned his wild ways (more or less) and opened an orphanage in war-torn Sudan, the movie paints a pretty black-and-white picture of Childers's life, with Gerard Butler's Sam as a sort of born-again bouncer for Jesus. In director Marc ("Quantum of Solace") Forster's fictionalized version of the story, Sam is a tattooed soldier of the Lord, separating the saints from the sinners of the world with a bullet.
The Sam we meet at the beginning of the film is a violent and angry ex-con, mired - by an addiction to drugs and alcohol - on a path that's bound to end badly, short of a miracle. When a man thought to have been killed by Sam and his waste-product pal Donnie (Michael Shannon) turns out only to have been grievously beaten within an inch of his life, Sam repents his evil ways. Before you can say "amen," Sam has cleaned up his act, reconciling with his ex-stripper wife (Michelle Monaghan) and pulling Donnie through rehab. Soon, he's building both a successful construction business and a no-frills church in gritty, blue-collar Pennsylvania, where he's forced to step behind the pulpit himself when the real minister doesn't show up.
"How do you find the strength to start over?" he asks. It's a good question. Unfortunately, Sam doesn't seem to know the answer. Neither does the movie. Things just happen.
The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but "Machine Gun Preacher" is downright confounding.
After hearing about missionary work in Africa, Sam decides, on the spur of the moment, to visit Uganda and Sudan. While there, he is appalled to learn about sectarian violence that has turned thousands of innocent children into orphans and child soldiers. Next thing you know, he's building a shelter for the kids. When that shelter is attacked by rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army, an ostensibly Christian militia at war with soldiers from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, Sam takes up arms himself and joins the fight.
But what fight exactly is he joining? The civil war, which the film presents in only the most muddled terms involving tribal, religious and geographic rivalries, doesn't really interest Sam, except to the extent that it affects "his" kids. To Sam's credit, he rescues - and refuses to shoot - several well-armed but underage soldiers from the LRA at one point. But he has no problem mowing down their only slightly older comrades, whom he never asks for proof of age before pumping them full of lead.
The problematic morality of Sam's actions is echoed by the film, which sees things in black and white. The arguments of the only character to question Sam's choice of violence are not just silenced. The character - an aid worker whose pacifism is shown as naive - is summarily killed.
"Machine Gun Preacher" would be a better film if it acknowledged the contradiction inherent in its title or if it worked a little harder to help us understand not just Sam's miraculous conversion, but his complexity, bordering on obsession. It gets the bullet points of Sam Childers's life, but misses the target.
Contains violence, obscenity, sex and drug use.