Machine Gun Preacher is based on the life story of Sam Childers (Butler), a former drug dealer and addict who, following a religious conversion, set up an orphanage in Southern Sudan.
Childers is introduced being released from prison. No sooner has he returned to the trailer park in which his family live than he is shooting heroin and robbing dealers at gunpoint with even more screwed up friend Donnie (an extremely cast to type Michael Shannon). In short Childers is an unpleasant person to be around. After hitting bottom with his addictions, he asks his family for help and is taken to a church meeting by his wife Lynn (Monaghan). Turning his life around, Childers cleans up, starts his own construction business, and moves the family into a nice house (viewers may find themselves thinking about the subprime mortgage lending scandal at this point).
So far this is a heartwarming (if sweary) Hallmark Channel movie but following a visit to his church by a missionary, Childers decides to undertake some voluntary work in Africa. This decision changes his life. Confronted first hand with the horrors of the conflict in Southern Sudan, he returns home and vows to start his own ministry that will accept the drug addicts, prostitutes and bikers other churches turn away. At the same time he plans to return to Sudan to build an orphanage. His activities in Africa attract the unwanted attentions of the Lord’s Resistance Army (the LRA), a militia who are terrorising the area, Childers does not take their aggression on the other cheek however and responds in kind, mounting armed missions to rescue children abducted by the militias. Thus earning the nickname “Machine Gun Preacher”.
This is a very unusual film in many respects, and troubling to review. On the one hand, it is entertaining despite the very grim real life subject and strong violence (there is an appalling scene showing in unflinching detail the effects of a land-mine on a child). The film is well made and acted. I've never been a fan of Gerard Butler, but he delivers a good performance here and has even started to deliver a credible American accent. Having the great Michael Shannon in the support cast is a plus point too, even if he isn’t given a great deal to do.
However, the films' treatment of the Sudanese conflict is extremely simplistic, reduced to the level of a western. There are the guys in white hats over here, and there are guys in black hats over there. In the middle is a lone American with a bible in one hand, and an AK47 in the other. Because the film narrows its focus to Childers' story it (intentionally or not) portrays violence is the necessary and justified solution to conflict. A liberal point of view is only given the briefest screen-time when an english doctor (a woman, somehow this seemed significant) tells Childers that the last thing Sudan needs is more men with guns. He gives no answer, but does later save her from being raped and murdered.
The film is unusual in its positive portrayal of revival style old-time religion. This is not in and of itself any bad thing, and a counterpoint to the default setting of many films that like to portray religious belief as something to be ridiculed. However once again there is little depth to be found here. Childers' religious conversion is accepted without any exploration of whether he has really become a changed man, or if he is just channelling and rerouting his aggression and anti-social tendencies into his activities in Sudan. People get hurt, Childers alienates family and friends, but he never, ever apologises. Director Foster mounts several action sequences where a bandana wearing, gun wielding Childers mounts military operations against the rebels. The film straddles an uneasy line between true life drama and action film.
In the hands of a director more inclined to take a critical and psychological approach like Peter Weir, Werner Herzog or Clint Eastwood this story could have been a truly fascinating character study. Marc Foster and writer Jason Keller appear to have no interest in this. Instead they present a handsome but hollow biopic. Butler attempts to portray Childers' struggle with his demons, but the film allows no glimpse behind the heroic aura. Worse, the story does not seem to turn on the horrors of Sudan, or even the difficulties of Childers' family at home. Everything seems to focus on his struggle, his pain, his conflict. This version of events does a disservice to both Childers and the conflict in Sudan. This is far too interesting a story to be told in such a shallow way.