When I first heard about Machine Gun Preacher, I’ll admit that I immediately jumped to some conclusions. The title alone caused me to associate it with such movies as Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun; movies whose concept is so simple and pulpy that they decided to put it right in the title. When I imagined Machine Gun Preacher, I thought of a Charles Bronson-type vigilante movie in which a reverend (complete with collar) hits the streets, bringing righteous justice to the world’s worst sinners. When I heard that it would star Gerard Butler, what else could I have thought but that my suspicions were confirmed?
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the film was directed by Marc Forster, the man behind Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, and Finding Neverland. Despite Forster’s recent foray into action with Quantum of Solace, I always pegged him as a man interested in telling interesting stories peopled with distinct characters. Why on earth would he be a part of a film that sounded as pulpy as Machine Gun Preacher, starring the guy from Gamer? I then discovered that the film was based on the true story of a former violent criminal that found God and headed into Sudan, where his violent past made him uniquely equipped to help the countless victims of a local warlord.
Suddenly, the film sounded more interesting to me, but not quite enough that I sought it out. Even as I received a handful of e-mails from people recommending that I see it and review it on my Christian podcast, More Than One Lesson, I just didn’t care that much. Finally, when it was released on DVD and Blu Ray, I watched it and found it to be an imperfect, but fascinating, portrait of obsession.
The reason that I’m giving you so much background is because I’ve found that, when I mention the film to my friends, they all respond the way I did. They hear the title and dismiss it. And while I’m not sure I’d say that the film is essential viewing, it certainly does not deserve to be cast off as lightly as one would the high concept, audience pandering experiment that was Snakes on a Plane. It deserves a second look. Or, more precisely, a first look.
More than anything, Machine Gun Preacher is a character piece about a man named Sam Childers, who lives in rural Pennsylvania as a violent biker and drug addict. This behavior has landed him in prison, which is where the film begins. He gets out to discover that his wife, a former bar maid played by Michelle Monaghan, has found Jesus. Childers has no interest in such things and immediately picks back up where he left off, getting into trouble with his friends. However, when he eventually kills a man (albeit in self defense), he decides to change his ways. He follows his wife’s lead and goes to church. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes a Christian, starting a business, and building a church for people like him; strippers, drug addicts, criminals, and prostitutes.
It is through his ministry that he eventually travels to Sudan, where he helps to build houses and churches. However, when he hears about the horrible violence being inflicted on the populace, he decides he wants to do more. He commits himself to building an orphanage for the local children. However, as the warlord Joseph Kony and his forces destroy the local villages, it becomes very clear that Childers is going to have to do more than provide shelter for these children; he’ll need to actively protect them.
As Childers fights against Kony’s militia, he becomes more and more obsessed with his mission in Africa. He neglects his wife and daughter, selling their house in order to buy a new truck for the orphanage. And while his mission started as a function of his faith, he begins to discard it, wondering why God would ever let innocent children be tortured and murdered. His life becomes progressively more miserable as he lashes out at the people around him.
By far the most intriguing thing about Machine Gun Preacher is the way it effectively bookends the story with violence and addiction. In the beginning of the film, Childers is addicted to heroin and randomly violent. By the end of the film, he is addicted to his cause and his violence is a byproduct of that cause. To the film’s credit, we aren’t totally sure if this is a completely good thing. While Childers is no doubt doing some good, we see that he is no less obsessed or brutal; merely that they have been channeled toward something that could be seen as more positive.
But then it could be argued that Childers might have made things worse. As Kony has put a price on his head, it could put the orphans in more direct danger than they might have been otherwise. And while Childers’ faith seems to be genuine, we start to wonder if it was ever what he actually wanted, or it was just a means to an end. He wanted to get out of his old life, and if that meant turning to God, so be it. And for a while, it seems that his faith is genuinely transformative, as he reaches out to the outcasts of society. But when we see how readily he falls into his old ways, and how quickly he rejects his faith once he has found a purpose, it casts doubt over his whole spiritual journey.
We never quite know what to make of Sam Childers in this film and I think that is as it should be. And it is worth noting that the film is nuanced and complex almost in spite of itself. When one looks at the cover of the Blu Ray, with a rugged Gerard Butler looking stoic with his automatic weapon, we are meant to get an impression. When we see that the tagline is “Hope is the greatest weapon of all,” it further conveys that this is a film that is easy. It is cut and dried. This is a man willing to make sacrifices and put everything on the line for a good cause; simple as that.
But what Marc Forster gives us is a story that is at once inspiring and unnerving. It is not easy to watch Sam Childers as he so readily embraces violence and tosses away a deeper morality. This is a film that explores both the appeal and the dark side of vigilantism. Ready as I was for this to be a pulpy film that I could watch and forget about, I find my mind returning to it. And I am uneasy.