Salvation comes wielding a shotgun and riding a Harley. The title “Machine Gun Preacher” sounds eerily like “Hobo with a Shotgun”, giving the impression of a grindhouse exploitation flick with buckets of fake blood and one-dimensional characters. If only. The plot even sounds like one. A former Hell’s Angel, caught in the grip of drugs and violence, turns to God and becomes an avenging angel for Sudanese orphans. Only Marc Forster’s film is based on the amazing true story of Sam Childers, one that deserves to be told with far more nuance than this confused morality tale.
Gerard Butler, who had been riding a wave of Oscar buzz until recent weeks, plays Childers and to be fair he gives the best performance possible given the amateurish script he has to work with, free of any complexity or interest in showing the difficulties in the path he chooses. After hitting rock bottom, Childers turns to God with the help of his ex-stripper wife(Michelle Monaghan). His conversion is instant. No looking back at the violence he’d perpetrated in the past. We never once see him lament his past choices.
This simplicity will become a common thread, as Childers goes from having no prospects to owning his own thriving construction business without a single road bump. Building a church for sinners like himself, he is moved by the stories of atrocities being committed in Uganda. The phrase “no zealot like a convert” fits him to a tee, and without so much as a thought he decides to lead a mission there. Only when he arrives he wants to dive headlong into the war being fought south in the Sudan, where kids are routinely kidnapped by the ruling Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to become soldiers against a growing rebellion. What was once a mission of mercy quickly grows into a single-minded obsession as Childers risks literally everything, including his family’s well-being, to build an orphanage and continue to feed hundreds of starving children. Childers’ fanatical tailspin sees him losing control, ultimately putting his love of guns to good use, becoming more than just “The White Preacher” and instead a soldier in God’s army.
If director Marc Forster and Jason Keller’s script had bothered to explore the duality of Childers’ character in any way, perhaps this would be more than just another movie about a white guy swinging to the rescue of the poor, ignorant black folks. We never once find out why Childers is so motivated by this cause. Why he feels it’s ok in the Sudan to use the violence he gave up back home in America. Does Childers have any regrets about anything he’s done or is currently doing? There’s never any attempt to characterize the Sudanese people as anything other than Childers’ enthusiastic supporters. Nobody’s insulted by his presence there? Anybody want to question this insane white man’s mental faculties? Anybody?
With the exception of Monaghan the supporting cast has little to offer. What few chances she gets to shine, she portrays Childers’ wife as a true pillar of strength and the family’s actual protector. The great Michael Shannon is unfortunately wasted as Childers’ best friend, trying to break free from his own personal demons. He’s merely there to be used as a convenient emotional tool.
Maybe that’s how it went down. It’s possible that Childers never once questioned his actions, and if you go based on the film that seems to be the case. There’s just not much of a compelling story in a hero like that. We might as well be watching Commando or something.