Machine Gun Preacher (Relativity Media, R)

But we know eventually this preacher will pick up a machine gun, and each time he does the film takes another step back in quality.

 

 

Machine Gun Preacher has a title that screams “exploitation” and a story that screams “give me an Oscar.” To be fair, it is quite a story. The film chronicles the real life of Sam Childers, a drug dealing biker turned preacher who has been fighting for the children of Sudan since 1998. He is a fascinating character, and it would have been more surprising had there not been a movie made about him. His story certainly deserves to be told; I just wish it had been told better.

It is always hard to condense a man’s life into a couple of hours, but this film does a particularly bad job of it. When we meet Childers, he is being released from prison, and it is clear that his time there has done nothing to change him. He quickly gets into a fight with his wife, storms out and goes to a bar where he gets drunk and shoots up heroin.

The early scenes set up the kind of man Childers was, which is important to give us the full impact of his arc. However, the film is very sloppy in how it conveys the passage of time, which makes said arc seem ridiculous and unbelievable. After one particularly wild night of criminal shenanigans, Childers wakes up remorseful and almost immediately finds God. The transition is so jarring, I briefly wondered if there was a reel missing from the print that was screening. In another scene, Childers and his wife look exactly the same as they did in the scene before, yet their daughter has suddenly aged about eight years.

The whole first act of the movie feels very rushed, as if it can’t wait to get to Africa. Once there, the movie improves significantly; this is where the story truly begins. The horrors Childers witnesses in Sudan are enough to instantly sell us on his newfound mission in life. The scenes of him building his orphanage and bringing in homeless children are all pretty good. But we know eventually this preacher will pick up a machine gun, and each time he does the film takes another step back in quality.

The film was directed by Marc Forster, who has proven himself with small character movies like Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, but his last film, Quantum of Solace, showed that he has no skill for staging, shooting, or editing action. The action scenes here are less frequent and more realistic, but they are equally poor. The style manages to be chaotic and quickly cut, while also feeling slow and dull. Whether they are meant to thrill or horrify is unclear to me. However I would assume that they were not intended to lie dead on the screen, which is what they do.

Childers is played by Gerard Butler, who has made his name with bombastic, over-the-top action movies and romantic comedies that are borderline offensive. It is nice to see him try something new, and he does an adequate job, but it is unfortunate that this role didn’t go to rising star Michael Shannon, who shares several scenes with Butler and quietly acts him under the table. The always solid Michelle Monaghan is also given a thankless role as Childers’ long suffering wife. The brief moments we spend with these talented actors don’t do Butler any favors.

Machine Gun Preacher is not an awful movie, but it is not quite good either. There is a good, or even a great movie in there, but it is let down by a weak screenplay and a lead performance that fails to capture the audience in the way it should. The filmmakers should have gone all out, taken their time, and made this a Lawrence of Arabia-style epic. Ultimately, the good things about the film make its overall failure even more disappointing. Over the end credits we see footage of the real Sam Childers. I would recommend looking up interviews with the man—they will be much more riveting than this film. | Sean Lass

 

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