By Kristin Battestella
I was eager to see this 2011 true telling of the eponymous minister Sam Childers and his mission work in Africa. Though heavy hitting and powerful in its spiritual tale and in shining the light on children’s plights, Machine Gun Preacher has a little too much to do in showing its multi layered story and somewhat hinders its potent performances.
Biker Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is released from prison and returns to his criminal ways despite wife Lynn’s (Michelle Monaghan) turn to religion. Childers eventually comes to faith himself and after success in his construction business, builds a church for other reformed men like himself and best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon). Upon hearing of mission work in Uganda and orphans amid the Lord’s Resistance Army strife in the war-ravaged Sudan, Childers goes to Africa to help despite the ups and downs it creates with his own family. When the foundations of his hospitals, schools, and orphanage are threatened and damaged by the regime, Childers uses his weaponry knowledge to defend the frightened and maimed children in his care.
A violent 2003 Sudanese village attack with upsetting images of women and child injustices sets the scene for this biopic before introducing us to the titular biker and would be minister Sam Childers. Director Marc Forster’s (Quantum of Solace) pace, however, is somewhat confusing as we go back thru the years and meet Childers fresh out of jail and immediately deep into his old life of drugs and guns. Robbery, stabbings, shooting up – regardless of the criminal activity, the uneven editing or intercutting is heady one moment and then too slow or tame like a Y2K TV movie from the period Machine Gun Preacher depicts. The transition from underworld debauchery to church going also happens too quickly, increasing the subsequent reckless or violent feelings instead of the about the man inspiration. With or without religion, audiences love films with strong redemptive characters brought low only to overcome. With its bland look, haphazard, and armed debate, however, Machine Gun Preacher looses the resonance of its tender, reforming salvation story. Instead of a rushed twenty minutes, one could do an entire movie on such an uplifting character arc, but the only way to tell such transformative time is speedily passing in Machine Gun Preacher is through Childers’ Rapid Soap Opera Aging daughter. Decide to be a righteous war epic or a quiet personal piece – the mishmash of battle desolate and dangerous or scary scenes don’t always hit home as they should because of Machine Gun Preacher’s indeterminate structure and timeline crunch. Understandably, when a film is based on real life questions this sort of struggle to properly dramatize events can happen – with such a two sided, dual tale of one man, this material was always going to be compromised in its telling. Would Machine Gun Preacher have been an even finer picture had it abandoned the true story narrative and streamlined choice cinematic events for a completely fictionalized account? Perhaps.
Fortunately, the story gets better as it goes on thanks to the honest baptism scene and spirituality treated as factual, natural, and realistic even amid Childers’ human struggles and imperfection. This newfound faith isn’t handled as overly lofty, magically montaged, or even filmed artistically or highbrow. This is a man trying to do well for himself and his family as finances, work, and recovery troubles mount. Childers sells his motorcycle, gives blood for money, let’s toss in a tornado just to really test a man’s resolve before the carpentry business succeeds! Granted, the symbolism is obvious at times – the family starts in a distant choir loft and the next minute they are sitting in the front pew – and again, the story seems uneven since Childers’ life changing conversion isn’t the primary focus of Machine Gun Preacher but rather a background catalyst for his causes in Sudan. That being the case, then the film takes half of its two hour plus runtime for the real titular action to happen. Machine Gun Preacher restarts its tale once Childers gets to Africa, and he asks questions about the LRA so the audience is updated on the disturbing war injuries and landmine consequences. This reset is tough to pull off, yes, but who can quibble when kids are asking what they did wrong to be so attacked? No shocks are withheld, and once we hear Childers speak on his mindset, details, and cause, the story grows deeper and more personal. The possibility of one person doing good is relatable compared to the angering, snotty, uncaring rich folk refusing to fund the desperate, maimed, and destitute children. Machine Gun Preacher gets heavy and asks some tough, gray questions despite an unrefined script from newcomer Jason Keller (Mirror Mirror). Is some of the ambiguity, language, or blood played too safe at times so Childers can show a slightly re-cut version of Machine Gun Preacher in his ongoing work? Maybe. However, Hollywood would have made Machine Gun Preacher a 90 minute feel good movie – a sweet, badass looking action picture with a clear line in the sand, black hat wearing villains, and heroes on white horses easily defined in total rah rah rah.
Of course, Machine Gun Preacher must also rise upon its lead actor, and Gerard Butler certainly looks badass a top a motorcycle! His rough get up is cool, matching the slicked back hair, rocking beard, biker build, sleeveless arms, and husky voice. Naturally, he’s chewing on an American accent, but Butler does get some of the nearby inflections right and it lends an authenticity to Machine Gun Preacher. His look also noticeably changes through the film – Butler cleans up nice as Childers cleans up nice before ultimately switching to some militant swag. It’s also downright refreshing to hear Butler bandy over serious dialogue and dramatic delivery in such a serious role. Family man Childers does his best, works hard, and helps his friend back from the brink, and Butler hammers, digs, and builds in excellent physical embodiment of Childers’ determination. Childers does start Machine Gun Preacher as unlikeable, trashed, and disheveled to parallel his drug shooting, misogynistic demeanor. He’d rather his wife be a moneymaking, hard drinking stripper instead of an honest factory worker, and again, the fast moving timeline slightly compromises his positive changes. The viewer sees him get on the up by his home, family, and business one minute yet he’s running off to save Africa the next. Childers speaks powerfully at an under construction church but then jets off again to build an orphanage. The spiritual transformation is superficial or full force as needed, and though it’s apparent that he’s just looking for a crusade to occupy the void of his previous wild activities, Butler makes us believe Childers must do something about the big picture. Gerry’s likeable earnest is the best part of Machine Gun Preacher, yet we don’t immediately think of him for this kind of part thanks to his badass action yarns or crappy romantic comedies. He is on his game in driving Machine Gun Preacher and this may in fact be his best immersion of character since 300. This isn’t an ogle Gbuttz movie for sure, but its Gerard frickin no fear Leonidas Butler at a pulpit – we want him to succeed. Machine Gun Preacher proves he can make some damn fine movies when he wants to do so. Not only has he actually done work with charities in Africa, but if Butler did turn to doing somber, artful good movies or produced topical films all the time, Lord have mercy! His only problem is that no one is watching these quality pictures.
While Butler is giving his all in Childers’ quest to save orphans, that uneven writing and Machine Gun Preacher’s unanswered questions hamper the zest and the story’s opportunities for more. Butler doesn’t shy away from the difficult choices gnawing at one’s core and shows the crisis of faith and its extremes – from the tenderness, uplift, and inspiration to the one drink away from destroying the mind, body, and soul. Unfortunately, such heavy, often too close to home concepts are not for entertainment value, and the audience of Machine Gun Preacher is left with an uncomfortable, tough emptiness instead of closure. Childers certainly goes off the deep end at times – wouldn’t you? How do you choose which orphans to help if there are too many and you can’t save them all? Do you just not try? Why continue this losing battle at the expense of your own family, mortgaging their livelihood, selling your business, and missing your daughter’s life? Is it Childers’ place to play white savior in Sudan? Is he helping, hurting, or interfering? It’s easy to root for Childers when he is doing actual ministry at home or abroad. However, his physically taking up arms in renegade salvation will negate his mission for some viewers. Machine Gun Preacher makes some confusing statements, and Childers’ killing of others – sometimes tragically forced militant kids – to save the lives of other orphans can certainly lead to a spiritual dispute. One has to defend one’s ministry. We ought to defend the sanctity of all houses and homes needing protection– but with rocket launchers? Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t present this debate very well yet adds some shame rousing on top. He’s doing something to help others, but what are you doing? We like Butler. Upon hearing his stirring pleas for funds, you want to know to whom you make out the check! We never get the sense that this movie is a big advertising campaign for Childers’ ongoing missions, but had this hot button material honed in its riveting statement to match Butler’s presence, Machine Gun Preacher could have been a controversial success instead of an obscure church movie.
True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan also falls prey to spousal clichés in Machine Gun Preacher as Lynn Childers. She found religion and changed her tune while Childers was in prison, but we see too little of her strife as she supports him thru the worst and the best. The back and forth is both girl of gold and a thankless part – she tells her man he has God’s purpose and he needs to build again while on the phone and pushing a shopping cart at the grocery store. Their relationship onscreen seems all about him instead of them or her and any happy understandings or uneasy rough patches they may endure. Monaghan has excellent moments when push comes to shove between cause and family, yet she’s almost painted in a bad light if she contests Childers’ Sudan glory. Does a wife have the right to draw the line on family when he is doing such good for others? Likewise, Michael Shannon’s (Boardwalk Empire) drug dealing biker pal Donnie is immediately dislikeable as a mocking enabler and we unfortunately don’t get to see all of his touching recovery thru Childers’ help. Of course, that jump over a critical character turn doesn’t stop him from becoming the underused but typical brotherly and sacrificial best friend. Kathy Baker (Picket Fences) as Childers’ mom Daisy also has next to nothing to do in Machine Gun Preacher – I don’t recall her even speaking onscreen! Although she’s apparently a lovely upstanding lady, it’s never explained how her son turned into a prison going bad biker, either. Madeline Carroll (Swing Vote) as daughter Paige fairs slightly better only because her point that Childers cares more about his cause then her is a very valid one. Several spotlight Sudanese child characters such as newcomer Junior Magale and soldiers Souleyman Sy Savane (Goodbye Solo) and Mduduzi Mabaso (Blood Diamond) also provide an innocent but no less sophisticated and much needed counter balance on how to let hate go and not let cruelty change your heart. They put a face to the mission but should have been better focused soundboards for Childers instead of leaving Machine Gun Preacher as a patchy one-man vehicle. Solid emotional scenes from the ensemble and questions from aid worker Jessica Joffe (And It Was Good) on mercenary motivation versus humanitarian aide or killing for the right reasons reflect the viewers’ ethical questions and help deter Machine Gun Preacher from lapsing into its one sided storytelling crutch.
Although Machine Gun Preacher has no major fancy camerawork interfering with the tale and the story is generally allowed to speak for itself from scene to scene, it nonetheless feels that a production finesse or punch is lacking here. The straightforward independent style looks undynamic or standard; dark nighttime photography and firelight make it tough to see who is who amid the battle action logistics. However, the crappy early 2000s cars, trailers, and South Africa filming locations are both lovely to see and fittingly bleak or harsh. The good old-fashioned split level rancher interior filming is also not congested but realistic compared to studios and sets. Would Machine Gun Preacher be more polished and a deeper, complex tale if it had focused solely on either Childers’ transformation or his African campaign? A fully dramatized mini series or episodic length not beholden to the back and forth could build the transformation, business struggles, difficulties at home, ministry, crisis, and wartime in an extended, worthwhile, if depressing presentation. The end credits contain words about ongoing mission work and real photos of The Childers Family, yet Butler’s larger than life presence almost isn’t enough to tide Machine Gun Preacher’s often polarizing double design and pacing flaws.
The inconsistent faith questions, divisive action, and zooming timeline will be polarizing, even aggravating because the audience keeps thinking of the film Machine Gun Preacher should have been rather than the picture it is. For some viewers, something more inspirational will be missing from Machine Gun Preacher thanks to its real life meandering, but then again, this isn’t an indulgent re-watch nor does it shy away from the ugly humanitarian struggles in its heavy viewing. There are not for faint of heart scenes that will have even the most hardened audience holding its breath and gasping regardless of the man’s man physicality and action edge. Yes, Machine Gun Preacher has its ups and downs in getting itself straight, yet I’m surprised this too zealous and not zealous enough picture with such controversial potential limped away from the box office with only $1million to its name and has gone so unnoticed by, well, everyone. The unexpectedly fine performances, touching moments, and relevant issues in Machine Gun Preacher are worthy of discussion, perhaps even in some churches or schools. Hampered as is, Machine Gun Preacher should not be so easily dismissed, for its stirring, spiritual pondering is most definitely worth a look.