Machine Gun Preacher
Directed by Marc Forster
Screenplay by Jason Keller
Gerard Butler as Sam Childers
Michelle Monaghan as Lynn Childers
Kathy Baker as Daisy
Michael Shannon as Donnie
How long is Machine Gun Preacher? 127 minutes.
What is Machine Gun Preacher rated? R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality.
I once was lost… I’m still kinda lost.
What do you call a two-hour movie with forty-five minutes of wholesome, inspirational tearjerking and a buck-fifteen of dead weight? No, not The Blind Side. This year, you may call it Machine Gun Preacher. This presumably well-meaning film from Swiss humanitarian Marc Forster is a cleverly devised ambush on the conscience of the average moviegoer. That would probably be okay, if it were a better crafted film. However, we all know that the words “based on a true story” have become code for “we don’t have to craft it better; this is what really happened!
Gerard Butler stars as Sam Childers, a drug-fueled lowlife headed straight to an early grave. His wife and little girl take particular exception to this prospect, and upon his latest release from prison, Sam’s wife (Michelle Monaghan) urges him to hang it up and find religion, as she has. Though he intially scoffs at the advice, an eventual brush with death scares him straight. He spruces up, gets baptized, and begins walking with Jesus. No problem so far.
In time, Sam is a model member of the congregation, and goes so far as to build a church of his own. He offers Christian ministry to the overtly sinful, many of whom are his buddies and former partners in crime. From there, he becomes active in foreign outreach, bringing his carpentry skills to impoverished Uganda. All goes quietly until news of civil war in nearby Sudan catches his ear, and he decides to cruise in (with the Sudanese freedom fighters) and see what is going on. Before you know it, he is fully involved himself, building an orphanage for the endangered Sudanese children and filling his spare time with mercenary work on their behalf.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this premise. In fact, it promotes some darned uplifting ideas. At best, the movie could have been an amalgam of Robert Duvall’s The Apostle and Sylvester Stallone’s fourth Rambo film — each a very good picture in its own right, though Machine Gun Preacher proves that they do not mix gracefully. Strange, isn’t it, how two nominally fictional scripts, essentially dealing with the same themes, are far superior to a tale which purports to have actually happened. If Sam Childers did half of what this film claims, then he truly is a hero worthy of our esteem. However, a documentary would have been a far more appropriate way of sharing his adventures with the world. Presented as it is, Machine Gun Preacher is practically impossible to swallow.
Because it deals with such serious subject matter, we are presumably supposed to forgive the complete lack of pace or structure in the story. Over and over again, the film bounces from conflict to resolution, then on to a new virtually identical conflict, until a film just over two hours begins to feel like it has run for three and a half, at least.
There is an episode of Futurama in which hammy soap opera star Calculon laments the fate of his beloved co-star thus: “Your death fills me with sorrow… anger!… fear… every emotion an actor can display!” The script of Machine Gun Preacher forces Gerard Butler to emote in a similar melodramatic cycle numerous times, each time with more intensity.
Having said that, I must add that I did enjoy Butler in this film, ludicrous as the script’s demands upon him were. For the entire 127 minutes, he is clearly acting as hard as he can. This cannot be said of many other people in the script. I think I remember liking Michelle Monaghan a lot in something, but not in this. Her impassioned spiritual pep talk to her disheartened husband, evidently meant to be an emotional high point in the film, is one of the most laughably undercooked bits in the whole shaky drama. Part of it is the conceit that since this immaculately pretty woman is a working-class Pennsylvanian, she must naturally talk with her grammar all improper, like Roseanne Conner, which she ain’t. Neither is her young daughter (who is supposed to be how old, exactly? no clue). Their performances are too weightless to anchor the domestic drama that counterbalances Sam’s good works in Africa. Sam’s role as fierce protector to his adoptive flock is driving a wedge between him and his real family. This is not because they lack respect for his spiritual quest, but because he does not allow them to share in it. His possessive pride in being a hero is his critical flaw, and the movie gets a few points back for bothering to assign him one.
The only indisputably good part of this film is the presence of Michael Shannon, playing Sam’s dope-addict pal whose minor character arc provides the movie with as much pathos, if not more, than the sober moral drama at the forefront. Shannon plays weirdos and lowlifes with frightening naturalism, and the more room he has to act in films, the better. He has the chops and charisma to inherit the mantle of Willem Dafoe, and that could merely be a starting point. If his career continues on its slow and steady rise, he could become the darkest leading man we have seen since Robert Mitchum died on us.
Machine Gun Preacher, noble as its themes may be, demonstrates why the craft of screenwriting is so highly valued, and why bio pics generally flop. People’s lives, as they play out in the real world, are generally boring to watch. And for a film with this much conflict, that is simply inexcusable. By refusing to commit either to nonstop ultraviolent revenge or a complete lack of it, the movie seems uncertain of its own intended tone. Naturally, to write a more dramatically satisfying conclusion would be disrespectful, or at least that’s how the makers of Machine Gun Preacher seem to feel.
It is a wonderful, heartening thing to see a film which is not critical or judgmental about a life led by faith. The criticism falls squarely on Sam himself, and his inability to recognize the healthy limits of his calling. Near the end of the film, he comes to the realization that some compromise must be struck between his aggressive ministry and the family he is obligated to support and protect back home. However, his repentance seems half-hearted at best. Instead of resolving the dramatic loose ends in a satisfactory way, the director blindsides the audience with a final guilt trip. Not everyone with an important point to make knows how to make it well. If I ever meet the real Sam Childers, I will scramble to buy him a beer. If I meet director Marc Forster first, I think he owes me one.