Marc Forster has quietly become one of our favorite directors. From Monsters Ball to Finding Neverland to Stranger than Fiction through Quantum of Solace, Forster has discretely put together quiet a list of films that jump off the resume page.
His latest effort is Machine Gun Preacher, the true story of Sam Childers, a drug dealing thug who finds religion and then heads to Africa to help Sudanese children. When we first heard of the title, we were over the moon excited. Machine Gun Preacher sounds like an exploitation film. One filled with violence and enough blood to make Eli Roth sick. But the trailer proved us to be way off in our assumptions. Machine Gun Preacher looked to be heavy drama – one where a character finds redemption which will either lead to audience jubilation or tears depending on the films conclusion.
Gerard Butler (300) plays Childers. In the opening chapters of the film, Childers is portrayed as one tough and rough son-of-a-bitch. Our first introduction is when he is being released from the Department of Corrections and he has a ‘Go F-yourself’ greeting to the worker who hands him back his personal items. Childers is picked up from the prison by his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) who has stopped stripping and has found religion during Sam’s incarceration. This only seems to fuel Sam’s anger. And his drinking, robbing and drug filled ways with buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon) take Sam to the brink of collapse. It is at his most vulnerable moment that Sam asks for help from his wife and the two attend a local church where Sam immediately finds God and changes his ways. He soon opens a construction company and is living an honest man’s life.
When a guest speaker visits the church and discusses the situation in Africa, Sam again feels like God is speaking to him directly and he soon boards a plane leaving behind his wife and daughter to help build churches and orphanages in Sudan. But this is Sudan 2003 and violence between the Freedom Fighters and a tyrant that wipes out entire villages and kidnaps children to train them to kill will soon cross paths with Sam and send him on an emotional roller coaster ride full of equal parts rage and heartbreak.
The final reels of the film will have Sam going back and forth from America where he is looking to raise money for projects in Africa back to Sudan where he wields a machine gun to help protect the innocent children of the villages.
Machine Gun Preacher was meant to be an inspiring and rousing piece of work. But extreme violence (children have their legs blown off, others are forced to kill their own mother or risk death themselves) and the lack of any true emotional moment leave the film a bit flat in terms of message and impact.
Gerard Butler is exchangeable but serviceable in the lead role. I found him more believable as a preacher than as a drug addicted biker. The movie rests clearly on his shoulders and his overall performance has me simply shrugging my shoulders when questioned as to my impression.
The scenes in Africa and his relationships with the locals and with the children are the film’s highlights, but any momentum of his struggles against his oppressors is offset by the weaker story of his plights back home in America.
Monaghan is good in a strong female role and Shannon’s character gets too much screen time for a character that doesn’t really aide the story yet for a moment that sparks rage from the then-converted Sam.
Machine Gun Preacher is a good film, but hardly a great one. It was worth the entertainment dollar, but will likely be forgotten or will fade into the shadows of films that examine one man’s redemption. And for that, it can be considered a small failure as the true life story of Sam Childers must be a fascinating one.