If you’re anything like me, the title Machine Gun Preacher gets you excited. It’s a great name that forced visions of a good, old fashioned exploitative Grindhouse movie to rush through my head in excited anticipation. I could see the poster all too clear: a man of the cloth holding a giant gun front and center with the tagline in dripping red, “Jesus died for your sins. He’ll kill you for them.” I assumed the title was an all-you-need-to-know type, like Snakes on a Plane or Cowboys & Aliens, but perhaps I let my excitement get the best of me because Machine Gun Preacher is not what I pictured. It’s a true story with religious significance that thinks its artistic endeavors are reaching something profound when, really, it isn’t.
The story begins in Southern Sudan where we get to witness the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious military group that abducts and murders the people in surrounding villages. Flash forward to “Pennsylvania, USA, a few years earlier” (a title card that is, oddly, both specific and unspecific at the same time) and Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is being released from prison. He is a violent, abusive junkie who treats his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), like a lesser individual. After a night of drug use with an unnamed pal (Michael Shannon), he attacks and stabs a man, placing him in critical condition in the hospital. Thankfully, he seeks help and begins going to church with Lynn, where he finds God and considers it his calling to help others. He begins by building a church across the street from his home, but soon winds up in Africa, rescuing orphaned children and fighting back against the LRA.
Machine Gun Preacher strikes me as a movie that only a select few will enjoy. Despite its Christian themed story and values, it features explicit sex, graphic violence, atrocities of war and offensive language, including racial slurs. It will undoubtedly turn off the more conservative viewers who would not normally watch this sort of thing. On the other side of the coin are the non-believers who, if they even venture into the theater at all, will see everything through cynical eyes. At one point, Sam is distraught and thinking about giving up after the LRA burns down the church and orphanage. Lynn tells him it was merely a test from God, but if He truly sent them to destroy, then surely He must have condoned the killing of the innocent too, a conundrum that goes against the very basis of religious indoctrination. It’s moments like these where the more skeptical among us will roll their eyes.
Still, at least Sam has that thought. As any normal human being would, he begins to question his own faith after witnessing the murder and destruction around him, wondering how a just and loving god could allow these terrible events to occur. It’s a natural progression that is, unfortunately, impeded by a screenplay that doesn’t take the time to develop it. His character goes through the motions without ever truly experiencing them. His loss of faith is barely touched upon (perhaps so as not to alienate the Christians in the audience) and his journey into it is rushed past the point of credulity. For the first 20 minutes, you watch him attack, steal from and abuse those around him, but after attending one, only one, church service, he finds himself a changed man. Before you know it, the racist you just watched shove a gun in a black man’s face is sharing a Coke with an African. This is a moment that should be heartwarming, but it instead feels forced, cheesy and manipulative because the necessary work to get us there had not been done.
Machine Gun Preacher has a rough start. The performances and character actions are so wildly over-the-top, they’re hard to take seriously, the heavy-handedness gets grating—the filmmakers try far too hard to make Sam an outrageously sinful man, so as to make his eventual redemption that much sweeter— and the churchgoers are stereotypes, waving their arms around in the air like they’re swatting bugs. Eventually, as the title suggests, Sam goes Rambo on the rebels, emerging from clouds of smoke with rocket launcher in hand, and it begins to pick up. Regardless of what one may think of his violent approach to helping, it can’t be argued he doesn’t make a difference.
So many people use religion wrong, but Sam Childers is a guy who uses it right. He was a lowlife, drug using criminal who turned his life around and dedicated it to helping others. He’s still going strong today. One can’t help but admire him, but his biopic is decidedly lackluster. Machine Gun Preacher feels like a made-for-television movie and is missing the gravitas it needs to tell its story.
Machine Gun Preacher receives 2.5/5