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Movie Review

Machine Gun Preacher

‘Preacher’ worships power of the gun

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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"Machine Gun Preacher’’ is crude and ham-handed from its ridiculous title on down, but it still gets to some interesting places. Based on the life of Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania biker who found God and became a Christian warrior for Sudanese orphans, the film’s mealy with good intentions, and there isn’t a subtle second in its 127 minutes. Instead of merely celebrating its hero as a kind of NGO Rambo, though, it puts the matter out there with all its untidy implications. Can you fight evil without becoming evil? “Machine Gun Preacher’’ is too confused to come up with a convincing answer, but at least it asks the question.

It’s a toss-up as to what’s the biggest liability, the simplistic screenplay by Jason Keller, Marc Forster’s thudding direction, or the brawny but one-note performance by Gerard Butler as Childers. When the film starts - after some East African atrocities to set the scene - Sam is tumbling out of jail and back into the junkie lowlife. Angry that wife Lynn (a miscast Michelle Monaghan) has found Jesus and is no longer working as a stripper, he heads off for heroin-fueled joyrides with best friend Donny, whom Michael Shannon plays with a desperate energy that feels like the real thing.

Forster sluggishly follows Sam’s journey from degradation to baptism to a new life in construction work to a preliminary visit to Uganda and southern Sudan, where Sam steps outside the missionary circuit and is horrified to witness what Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army are visiting upon the people: an apocalyptic reign of murder, rape, mutilation, and mass child abduction. “Machine Gun Preacher’’ shows us enough to beat us into submission and propel the hero into action.

Sam initially builds an orphanage in the bush but quickly realizes that providing a haven for the innocent isn’t enough - he’s going to have to fight off their attackers. The film clog-dances through a minefield of socio-political complexity: Sam and the local freedom fighters may be up against conscripted child soldiers, but, conveniently, the latter turn against their commanders when push comes to shove. It’s the children Sam isn’t able to save that drive him toward a tortured stand-off with God.

Imagine what a director and an actor capable of finesse might have done with this material. As it is, “Machine Gun Preacher’’ stumbles through its awful contradictions - the wife and teenage daughter (Madeline Carroll) Sam neglects in America while he obsesses over the helpless children of Sudan, the well-off stateside donors who really don’t want to hear about butchered African kids. The movie combines an unhysterical view of American evangelism with an acrid admission of its limitations. Is Sam even a Christian anymore when he goes gunning for Kony’s militia? He doesn’t care, and neither does the movie.

So, fine, hash it out for yourselves - the line where faith becomes works and works turn amoral. “Machine Gun Preacher’’ engages all these dissonances, but artlessly and without trusting us to think for ourselves. It’s a long, bloody haul, with time out for rocket launchers and lost boys, and the biggest lost boy is probably Sam himself. His crisis of conscience might be compelling coming from any actor other than Butler, whose meat-and-potatoes performance makes the character seem less interesting than he is. When the end credits roll, we see footage of the real Childers, and we realize with a start that here’s the charismatic screw-up we should have been following all along.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

MACHINE GUN PREACHER Directed by: Marc Forster

Written by: Jason Keller

Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Souleymane Sy Savane

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 127 minutes

Rated: R (violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use, and a scene of sexuality)

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