One might expect a film with the title of Machine Gun Preacher to fall squarely in the ranks of exploitation films like Foxy Brown, or the more recent Machete, and Marc Forster’s new film does contain elements of that genre. The film’s lead character, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), knocks his wife around after he’s released from prison, hangs with a fellow heroin junkie at a biker bar, robs a drug dealer at gunpoint and then proceeds to repeatedly stab a hitchhiker. That’s just during the first 15 minutes. But the true life, fact-is-stranger-than-fiction story of what Childers does next elevates Machine Gun Preacher beyond standard exploitation fare. It also drives the narrative to some interesting places, though, ultimately, a failure to develop the title character drags the film down, keeping it from becoming something even better.
With help from his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), Childers finds religion and is soon drawn to fly to East Africa to help with the rebuilding of homes ruined by a civil war. But it’s the abandoned children who convince the American to build an orphanage where they will be safe from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that kidnaps children after killing their parents and then forces the kids to fight. When the LRA burns down the first orphanage, Childers builds a stronger one, actively participating with state troops in the defense of the compound. (As the title suggests, a machine gun becomes his weapon of choice.)
If this stuff was made up, it would never reach a studio. But Hollywood likes a truth it can exploit.
Accompanying the main action is a sub-plot involving one of the kidnapped children who, after being rescued, tries to find some of his family members. It serves an as arresting depiction of the horrors of one of the most atrocious African civil wars. In comparison, the depiction of Childers deserves a little more depth than the script allows. Nothing in Butler’s performance yields much insight into why Childers chooses to risk his life creating an orphanage in a foreign country. His conversion from addict to born-again Christian to minister to savior of children to military mercenary isn’t examined enough to be believable. We see plenty of his anger and determination, but the insight is lacking. Director Forster surrounds Butler with some admirable talent. Michael Shannon, as Butler’s also-addicted buddy, steals more than a few scenes in the film. Monaghan is given little to work with as the strong stay-at-home-in-America mom, but she manages a few fireworks moments with Butler. Also worth noting—Forster avoids what could have been a stereotypical, condescending, one-dimensional view of Bible Belt Christians. Instead, there’s an honesty to the scenes.
Unfortunately, such honesty is lacking elsewhere, as the script so condenses the central conflict down to its basic elements of good vs. evil that Forster has little room to explore the psyche of Childers. Still, the preacher’s incredible story, and the battles that are a part of it, should find an audience, even with the requisite editing for short attention spans.