Belying its cheesy grindhouse title, Machine Gun Preacher is a serious, occasionally jarring drama inspired by the true story of Sam Childers and his ongoing efforts to provide a safe haven for the children of war-ravaged southern Sudan and northern Uganda. However, it misses what is truly compelling about its subject. For director Marc Forster and star Gerard Butler (who also has a producing credit), Childers’ story is one of an intensely passionate, flawed man who, through fearlessness and will, is nevertheless fighting the good fight. But the fascinating part of Childers isn’t that he’s fighting on the side of right (or whether he is actually, as one humanitarian calls him, a mercenary) but the way his conception of his new-found religiosity is molded to fit and justify his actions and provide an outlet for his innate aggression. It’s an important aspect that is never explored.
Childers is introduced as a short-tempered, bar-dwelling biker who returns from prison to his ramshackle mobile home in rural Pennsylvania. There, after paying scant attention to his young daughter, he learns his wife (Michelle Monaghan) has decided to forgo her job as a stripper and attend church — a decision that the controlling Childers violently opposes. A bloody encounter with a hitchhiker is depicted as the catalyst that leads him to seek salvation.
After hearing about the atrocities affecting Sudan from a guest speaker in church, Childers soon determines to see the country for himself. While there, he witnesses the death and cruelty being inflicted upon the children of the region, and decides to help by building an orphanage (he owns a small construction business). When his first attempt is destroyed by members of the cruel Lord’s Resistance Army, Childers perseveres with encouragement from his wife. While the title of the film and its few scenes of Childers preaching to his small congregation suggest that he is a warrior for Jesus, his motivations are far more existential and pragmatic.
Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace) elicits good performances out of his actors, especially from Michael Shannon as a recovering drug addict and friend of Childers. But he doesn’t give the story any dramatic shape. The same problems that plagued Forster’s Bond entry show up here as well. Under his guidance, battles that should be riveting are reduced to a confusing blur of gunfire and falling bodies, thus muting their emotional impact.
Though lacking cohesiveness, Machine Gun Preacher hits the gut with its visceral depiction of the damages of war. However, those seeking the cheap thrills of a revenge fantasy (Childers at one point is mockingly called “Rambo”) should bear in mind this is not predominantly an action film.
As Childers, Butler convincingly and sympathetically captures the drive that leads him to spend much of his time away from his family. But the film never explores any of his inner conflicts or Childers’ need to be in battle. He channels his previously destructive energies into something positive, but even in the end-credit footage of the real Childers, he comes across like a man who needs to be at war. Machine Gun Preacher is fine as a diversion, but Childers’ story deserves a better film. So does the audience.