The story of Sam Childers reads like a work of fiction, even Gerard Butler who played him in the film thought so when he first read the concept of the film. But no, it only sounds too good to be true. Childers was a former gang biker who led a reckless and dangerous life full of drugs, alcohol and violence who turns to God after hitting rock bottom and finds a new purpose in life. I’m always drawn to stories about redemption, and Marc Forster doesn’t pull any punches in portraying the protagonist at his worst, which made his journey even more remarkable.
Machine Gun Preacher opens with incredibly brutal night scenes in a small African village and contrasting that with the life of a man half a world away in rural Pennsylvania. It’s the day Childers is being released from prison. By the way he defiantly strode out of there, cussing at the prison guard just before he walked out, it’s safe to assume he’s been there for the umpteenth time and nothing has changed. He didn’t have much respect for his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) and was downright hostile towards her upon hearing that she had quit her lucrative stripping job. ‘You found Jesus?!’ He howled at her. ‘No Sam, He found me!’ Childers then stormed out and was immediately back to his old ways of shooting heroin and ruthlessly robbing crack houses with his BFF Donnie (Michael Shannon).
But the Lord works in mysterious ways. One night Childers was close to slaying someone’s life, the next morning he’s shown getting ready for church. Soon he gets baptized and turns his life around almost in an instant. It’s perhaps an oversimplification on the film part to get things moving along to the real ‘meat’ of the story which takes place in Africa. Thus the film breezes through the part of how he came to building a church for ‘sinners like himself’ as he calls it, which led him to a mission trip that becomes a catalyst of his current humanitarian work.
Soon after Childers arrive in Sudan, he’s exposed to the atrocity of the Lord’s Resistant Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that routinely kidnap children to turn them into soldiers, which explains that scene shown in the beginning of the film. This film is definitely not for the faint of hearts, many times I have to cover my eyes during the violent parts, especially those involving children. Contrary to what the title suggests, Childers doesn’t immediately take up his bazooka and start shootin’. He first builds an orphanage that ends up getting burned down, but with his wife’s encouragement, he builds it again. It’s when the rebels threaten to burn it down again that Childers thought it’s best to fight them instead of waiting for them to attack again.
The story of Sam Childers is not an easy one to film. I mean, we’re talking about compressing a 30-year span of someone’s life into a 2-hr feature here. The real life preacher surely is a much more complicated figure than what’s depicted on screen, but I think the moral of the story comes through. Here’s a man who is appalled by such a grave injustice and human cruelty, but instead of simply feeling sorry for the people affected, he actually does something about it. Yes his method is quite controversial, both believers and non-believers alike question the use of firepower to protect these children that some may call a radical act. But the way I see it, I really don’t know how he could shelter these kids and make them feel safe if they’re not armed to defend themselves??
Kudos for Gerard Butler for taking a massive pay-cut to bring Childers’ story to life. He truly embodied the character with his passionate and stirring performance. I’ve always believed he’s a capable and versatile actor, so his dramatic chops here doesn’t exactly surprise me. Most people know he’s perfect for the action-packed scenes, but his interaction with the kids brings out his tender, sensitive side that’s wonderful to watch.
“If you allow your heart to be full of hate, they have won.”
This quote comes in the heart-wrenching scene between Childers and one of the orphaned kids is one of my favorites from the movie. It echoes what Childers often said in interviews, that even though people say he saved these kids, they in turn save him, too.
The supporting performances are terrific as well. Monaghan perhaps seems too glamorous for the role of Lynn, but she did a wonderful job in portraying a loving and supportive wife who is key in keeping the family together. Michael Shannon, whom I saw on screen for the first time has quite a screen presence, but I feel that his talent is sort of wasted in an under-written role. But I suppose it’s quite a challenge to write a role like Donnie who’s actually an amalgam of several of Childers’ former biker friends. I also like Souleymane Sy Savane’s performance as the Sudanese freedom fighter Deng. His calm demeanor offers a nice contrast to Childers’ impetuous nature but their bond of friendship looks effortless.
As I said briefly in this post, I disagree with the critics’ assessment. No I’m not saying it’s a perfect film and I do have some issues about the pace and the way the filmmakers take a lot of liberties in regards to Childers’ faith journey, but despite the flaws the film still works. Also, for a film where the protagonist is in fact a preacher, the film isn’t ‘preachy.’ There’s no ‘holier-than-thou’ sentiment as Childers still struggles with his inner demons even after he got saved.
Overall, it’s an uplifting story that shines a light to a subject matter we don’t often hear in the media. I don’t even mind the seemingly incomplete ending, perhaps it’s intentional as Childer’s work in Africa still continues to this day. There are some films linger long after the end credits roll, and I certainly feel that way with Machine Gun Preacher. And speaking of end credits, it’s worth staying to see the footage of the real preacher and other people portrayed in the film.
|4 out of 5 reels|
I hope you give this film a chance and judge for yourself. I really think that regardless of your personal belief, there is something we can all take away from this film. If you have seen this one, I’d love to hear what you think.