FlixChatter Review: Machine Gun Preacher

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.

38 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Machine Gun Preacher

  1. PrairieGirl

    Spot on review, Flixy! One of the scenes that had a lot of impact for me was the second time they ran out of room in their truck to bring children back to the safety of the orphanage. As many as 25 or more children were clustered in a ditch, obviously awaiting their fate in the hands of the LRA. This time, the armed Childers stays with the remaining children until the truck can come back and transport the rest, obviously to avoid the tragedy that happened the first time this same situation happened. This is an excellent film, with excellent acting and a superb cast. GB really shows his acting range in this film, and comes out with an A in my book. I will be seeing this movie again.

    1. Oh yeah, there are lots of touching scenes in this film and that one you mention is definitely one of them. Seriously, I don’t know how Childers could’ve done without loads of ammunition and people who have some military training to protect these kids. Even just leaving them for less than an hour gets them killed!! The LRAs are pure evil.

  2. Melissa Bradley

    I’m interested in this film even though I normally do not like religious redemption films. But I do like Gerard and Sam’s story fascinated me solely for his strength in standing for those kids. Excellent review.

      1. Hi Melissa & Dezzy, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you’ll give this film a chance despite your feelings about redemption stories. I can’t imagine people not being moved by Childers’ story and what these poor kids go through. His commitment to help them out is nothing short of inspiring.

  3. Ruth. Thanks for this review. I know you were waiting for so many reasons to see this one. I’m both curious and unsure about it overall, especially with what you mentioned about the seemed rush of Childers’ transformation, but I have a feeling I will still enjoy it like yourself. I am glad that Butler and crew also chose to present this story, not just about Childers, and African conflicts, but also the value of faith, hope, and love in life!

    1. T, I really think you’d appreciate this one. I have some quibbles about the ‘faith crisis’ thing which I found out didn’t really happen in real life, but I’m glad that the filmmakers didn’t just gloss over the faith part entirely. It’s not just about Childers but like you said, it’s a story of how faith and a willing heart can transform and save lives, as it’s not just the kids that need saving.

  4. It’s interesting. I’ve developed an aversion to Gerard Butler that’s probably not fair to his abilities. Based on his appearances in some dull-looking romantic comedies and action films lately, I’m finding it hard to take his future projects interesting. I’ll try to keep an open mind when I get around to seeing Machine Gun Preacher. Based on your fine review, it sounds like it could be a pleasant surprise for me. Nice post!

      1. Ruth, I forgot he was in Dear Frankie. That’s a great movie! I think my feelings are too focused on movies like The Bounty Hunter and The Ugly Truth. I’ll definitely try and give him another shot, though.

    1. Well, you probably are not being fair! LOL. He has done over 30 films in UK and here, and only two were rom-coms! Law Abiding Citizen was hated by critics (I like it a lot), but the audience who chimed in on Yahoo movies did like it very much. PS I Love you is a great chick flick if you want to impress someone, and so is Phantom of the Opera. I liked Beowulf & Grendel, and Rocknrolla as well. An earlier indie film from Scotland is Dear Frankie, about his interaction with a deaf boy. He did a very good mini series in the UK, called The Jury, in which he plays a recovering alcoholic.

      I am not religious at all, but the transformation that occurs in Sam’s life is interesting. He is still a violent dude by many standards, but he has a focus now, so that is also something to be considered.

      1. Hi reel life, welcome to FC! Ahah, well it’s a pretty common reaction from those who’ve only seen Gerry in those rom-coms. You’re right that somehow people think he’s done a bunch of that stuff when in fact he’s got quite a diverse career. I love all the roles you mention here, especially Phantom and Dear Frankie, which are as different as you can get.

        Yep, Childers still struggles with his temperament but now he’s able to channel his rage to fight injustice and he sacrifice a lot for those kids, which is admirable.

  5. Hey glad you liked it Ruth. As stated before, I’m willing to give it a shot once it comes out on DVD.despite the 22% Rotten Tomatoes. I remember another Gerard Butler movie, Law Abiding Citizen was quite watchable despite overwhelmingly negative reception from critics.

    1. This is definitely has more going for it than Law Abiding Citizen, Castor. I think the critics has something against Butler, it’s mind-boggling how they kept trashing his films.

  6. “One night Childers was close to slaying someone’s life, the next morning he’s shown getting ready for church.”

    Was it really presented like that?

    1. Yeah, pretty much. The scenes of his transformation happen a bit too fast for me, that’s one of my beef about the film. But then again, who’s to say that someone can’t be so committed to something right away? Some people might take ten years to change, some might take ten hours.

  7. weetiger

    Great review. A lot of the things you liked were what I liked about it as well. It’s intense and it’ll haunt you. I personally think Gerard Butler’s performance is phenomenal. Is the movie perfect, no it isn’t, but it deserves to be seen. Let’s get the word out!

    1. Yeah, some of the scenes are really, really hard to watch but then again, the real life situation is probably a lot worse. Yes GB carries the film very well, even his American accent is convincing. Funny how Childers was doubtful how a Scot could pull off playing him but he actually said he nailed his PA accent. Yes, it deserves to be seen for sure. Thanks Sherry.

  8. Ted S.

    I’ll probably give it a rent when it’s out on BD, a lot of critics has been trashing Marc Forster’s films lately, including the very good Quantum of Solace.

    1. I’m not crazy about ‘Solace’ perhaps because Casino Royale was so amazing, but yeah it’s not a bad film the way the critics make it out to be.

  9. Linda

    Thanks so much for this great review. As soon as it is in my area, I will be there. I have been a Butler fan for several years. It is too bad some don’t like rom coms and he is critized for it because those or the movies that I like… good ones and PS I Love You is one of my favorite movies. He is a gifted actor and for some reason the majority of critics have something against him… Too bad, that is their loss, but he works very hard and he does not deserve it. I know one thing, he makes alot of fans very happy with each performance and hope we have many, many years of watching him.

    1. I like P.S. I love you a lot, and a lot of guys I talk to like it also, it’s so unfairly criticized as the story is quite moving, it’s not your typical rom-com.

      I really don’t care what critics say most of the time, and in regards to GB, they just don’t get it. They’d rather praise Pitt, Clooney, etc. for some reason whom I don’t get the appeal of.

  10. Yeay!! I am so glad that it lived up to its build up for you matey. I was worried for you.

    You say Gerry took a pay cut to do this? What was his salary? I bet it was enough to feed a country in africa for a year still!

    Great review my friend, as ever, you have such a great way with words.


    1. You’re sweet for worrying for me, matey, but yeah it lives up to my already high expectations. I don’t know the details but I heard somewhere that he made a mere fraction of his typical salary as this movie only has a $30 mil budget. This article says he only made 100,000 pounds ($150K), wow, that is almost unheard of for an A-list actor! I think the rest of the cast/crew took a similar pay cut as well. They did it because they believed in the project, so that’s cool.

  11. Finally, a full review and I finally have time to read it 🙂
    I love reading this as I can see how passionate you are with the movie. a 30 years story into a couple of hours does sound a bit forcing things up, but judging from your review,saying the message delivered well, I guess it worth to watch.

    I don’t know whether it will be in the cinema or not,but I will put it in my DVD list.I am curious with this movies because it has different receptions from different people.

    1. I’m curious to hear what you think, Nov. I doubt this will open on the big screen in Indo because of the heavy spiritual theme but I hope you can rent it later.

  12. Even though I didn’t know what the subject matter about this film would be about until about 2 hours before the film started, (I thought it was a comedy or some Rambo type movie), I really did enjoy it. It was well done in many areas. I had just watched a documentary on the diamond minds in Sierra Leone, and the horrible things gangs of people were doing to whole villages and towns just so a few people can hoard all the diamond money. I’m talking about raping, murdering most of the people in a town or village, then these gangs chopped the hands off the people that were left alive just so they couldn’t vote.
    Some pretty horrific things are going on over there and it’s very understandable about the military presence to protect those kids. This film probably won’t be seen as much because of the subject matter, but it does a pretty good job of showing just some of the atrocities going on, and it can be hard to watch.
    Good job Marc Forster, Gerard Butler, and most of all, Sam Childers!

    1. PrairieGirl

      Hey Corinne, I am so glad you liked the film… when I found out you didn’t know anything about it when you told me at dinner, I thought, oh my, I could have at least sent you the trailer ;-D. But sometimes it’s good seeing a film with no preconceived notions. Thanks for being my “date!” It’s almost inconceivable what goes on in Africa for power and money, and to see just one man take on such a cause is inspiring, to say the least. I’m really grateful to Sam and Gerry for making this film a reality.

  13. interesting review Ruth. don’t know if i’ll see this in the cinema. just reading about stuff that’s going on in Sudan depresses me. then again, it might be good to see somebody doing something about it.

    Biopics always seem to hit the highlights, don’t they. I think it’s partly because anyone’s actual life story is pretty messy, lots of extra characters and subplots. So they condense it down to the most exciting stuff to make the story.

    i forgot Forster did Quantum of Solace. I dug that picture. Seriously one of the reasons why i read reviews but don’t let them dissuade me from going to see something.

    1. I highly recommend this Paula, especially if you like GB. Yes it’s depressing at times but very uplifting as well because this film brings out the worst AND the best of humanity. It’s worth just seeing GB’s performance alone, but of course Sam Childer’s story is fascinating.

      I’m not a big fan of ‘Solace’ but it’s not a bad movie by any means. I like other Forster’s work such as Finding Neverland and Stranger than Fiction. Somehow he’s able to get his actors to play against type, as Will Ferrell was really good in a more serious role in ‘Fiction.’

  14. Excellent review Ruth. We seem to agree on lot of similar points here. As you know, I completely agree on Butler. Just superb! Shannon was very underused though. Despite, it trying to condense Childers life in two hours (which is nigh on impossible) I still found it slightly overlong. Any of these problems with length and character development was from a slightly muddled script but everything was in place. I really enjoyed it overall.

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