'Machine Gun Preacher': Bad Aim
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In "Machine Gun Preacher," the new film from director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Quantum of Solace"), the gulf between the sacred and the profane has rarely gaped so wide within the same film. Based on the true story of Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler), an ex-con who became a missionary and aid worker in Sudan almost entirely of his own volition and with his own resources, Forster's film is a hard-to-take mix of aspiration at its highest and human cruelty at its lowest. Within the opening moments, a child is forced, at gunpoint, to club his own mother to death. Childers takes breaks from building his orphanage to conduct armed attacks on the area's guerrilla fighters. The clash between principles and practice is like hearing hymns played by a metal band, or a children's choir singing Led Zeppelin.
When we meet Childers, he's swaggering out of jail after yet another bid in the joint, picked up by his long-suffering stripper wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan). A quick roadside bout of car sex, a jaunt home and Sam realizes things are different: Lynn's not stripping and has found Jesus. Sam doesn't want to hear about this, storming out of the trailer to find his funky junkie pal Donnie (Michael Shannon) for a shot of booze, a shot of heroin and some other vulgar pleasures.
But eventually Sam comes around -- and he needs to. Watching Butler claw at an unfamiliar collared shirt during a sermon, "Machine Gun Preacher" becomes a demonstration of salvation -- or at the very least of the desperate need for it. A speaker at church talks about the desperate need for missionary work in the Sudan, where religious fanatics cross borders to kill and maim and recruit child soldiers. Sam goes, at first picking up a hammer. And then, after learning more about the land's conflicts from soldier Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), he picks up a gun.
Childers not only risks his life in combat, he risks his world in struggle -- pouring time and money into the Sudanese mission, neglecting his wife, Lynn, and his daughter, Paige (Madeline Carroll). All of this may be true, but it's also, tonally, confusing: Are we supposed to admire Sam or fear him, respect his choices or doubt them? It would be one thing if "Machine Gun Preacher" were shooting for a tone of moral confusion, but in light of such manipulations as the opening scene (during which I saw one press member simply walk out) and the film's eventual emotional gambit of hope and healing cribbed from "A Christmas Carol," it's hard to think the film's shooting for ambiguity but instead, rather, doesn't quite know how to wrap the blood and squalor of genocide up pretty with such rough and raw materials as Childers' life.
Butler is agreeably watchable. His woozy, confused sermons where he preaches to the congregation of a church he's built himself are of real intensity. And his dilemma -- How do we change the world without it driving us mad? -- is presented strongly. But again, I can't see the audience who wants a heartwarming tale getting misty when Childers kills people with an AK-47, and I can't see the audience that would find this a tough, rewarding drama being wooed by some of the more Lifetime TV movie moments.
Forster's direction doesn't help: He's a competent technician but the kind of rank sentimentalist that makes Paul Haggis ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby") look like a stoic. Shannon is largely wasted, which is a shame, as he's much more watchable than Butler. Screenwriter Jason Keller has only one prior produced film -- surprise, surprise, a TV movie -- and "Machine Gun Preacher" feels a bit like it was written to straddle the line between truly inspirational cinema (where an unknown evil is exposed) and conventional awards-season Oscar-ready misery tourism (where the audience gets to spend a few hours feeling bad before going back to their safe, well-fed lives). "Machine Gun Preacher" is like the AK-47 of dramas: mechanically well-constructed, not especially flashy, solidly built so as to take a few knocks without jamming ... but ultimately so scattershot when it fires all its rounds that it's hard to tell what, exactly, the filmmakers were aiming for when they pulled the trigger.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.