Review: Gerard Butler headlines the strange and overly sincere 'Machine Gun Preacher'
What a weird movie.
Have you ever seen or heard of the movie "The Cross and the Switchblade" with Pat Boone starring in it? Total Godsploitation. It's about a hip young priest reaching out to some inner-city gang hoods and winning them over with some tough-talking Bible study and a few well-applied fists. It's based on a true story by a guy named David Wilkerson, and I couldn't help but think of that film when I was watching Marc Forster's new film "Machine Gun Preacher." Like that one, this is based on a true story, and like that one, it seems to want to be an exciting, violent movie that is ultimately about faith. That's just such a weird hybrid of goals that I have trouble getting a handle on tone, a problem that Forster seems to share.
Jason Keller wrote the film that tells the story of Sam Childers, who we see getting out of prison at the start of the film. He's a biker, and a bad guy. While he was in prison, though, his wife Lynn found Jesus, and she stopped dancing nude, and at first, Sam can't handle it. He and his buddy, played by Michael Shannon, go out for a night of celebration and bad behavior, and they end up killing a hitchhiker after he pulls a knife on them. It's too much for Sam, and rattled by his own dark side, he decides to join Lynn on the road to redemption. He gets a job in construction, and he starts getting serious about living a different lifestyle. At first it's enough for Sam just to do right by his wife and child, but he realizes that he wants to bring others to Christ, too, so he throws his determination into building a church and starting his own ministry. After a while, even that isn't enough to make Sam feel like he's worthwhile, so he decides to go to the Sudan to help build homes for a relief organization working there.
During his time in Africa, Sam's ideas about the world are challenged, and he finds what he believes is his true calling. The film opens with a scene where an extremist group breaks into a village in the middle of the night, pulling people from their homes. One young boy in particular is told to kill his mother with a machete or the rebels will kill his brother, and the young boy does it. Sam encounters hundreds of orphaned children in the Sudan, all with similar stories, and he decides to do something about it. He's going to build an orphanage…
… EVEN IF HE HAS TO KILL EVERY BASTARD IN AFRICA TO DO IT!
Gerard Butler gives a genuinely impassioned performance as Sam, and I honestly think he does his very best to give some sort of rough-hewn life to the character. He tries to illustrate this gradual waking conscience, the way Sam's idea of getting closer to God involves gunplay and brutality. It's a fevered performance, and I wouldn't even say it's a bad one. It's just such a strange balance to try to strike that I'm not sure there's a right way to pull it off. Michelle Monaghan's Lynn is just as hard-headed as her husband, and she plays this former dancer with a convincingly ragged charm. Michael Shannon has the most thankless part in the film, perhaps, as Sam's biker buddy, meant to embody all of the temptations that Sam leaves behind, and his storyline drives the film right into afterschool special territory.
Forster is such an earnest filmmaker, and this film is so obviously about something that matters to him, that it's hard to beat him up for it. It's just that it is so graceless about delivering that message. Sincerity helps to some degree, but there are some genuinely strange tonal shifts that the film tries to navigate, failing in the process. I think "Machine Gun Preacher" means well, but even knowing that Sam is a real person, this film still ultimately feels like yet another movie in which it takes a white man from outside the culture to come save all the backwards natives from themselves, and making it a movie that focuses on kids feels like a cheap shortcut to sentiment. Who can argue with the notion of wanting to save orphans, especially ones living in a hell like war-torn Sudan? It makes me feel like a rotten grinch to point out the film's flaws, but I think it's hard to give this one a pass. Ultimately, it feels like a misstep, no matter how well-intentioned, for all involved.
"Machine Gun Preacher" opens in limited release on September 23, 2011.