Machine Gun Preacher is an absolutely unapologetic message film. It tells the true story of Sam Childers, a wild living junky in rural Pennsylvania who finds God. He gets his life together and begins a construction business. The business is successful enough that he is able to move his family into a nice house and even begin his own church. One day he decides to go on a mission to Africa, to use his skills as a builder. While there he sees first hand the horrors of war wrought on people in Sudan.
This entire first section of the film has the pacing and story elements of an old fashioned Sunday school movie, where a man sins and Jesus saves. This heavy handed moralizing may alienate mainstream audiences. Meanwhile the sins in question are fairly graphic and earn the film its R rating almost immediately. Its suggested audience are your church going christian who might have also sat comfortably through most other hard R films. The first hour of the film is its weakest point with its unnecessarily drawn out and sensationalized scenes of moral depredation. Also, when the character of Sam finds God, a fair performance by Gerard Butler, as Childers, is nearly lost in stagy church scenes that carry little authentic weight.
Where Machine Gun Preacher finds its rhythm and where it might rather have begun right off are in the scenes of Sam in Africa, rescuing children and building an orphanage. As it happens he is proficient with firearms, precociously intelligent when it comes to battlefield engagement and utterly foolhardy in the face of danger. We connect more viscerally with Sam and his relationship with himself and his family in the cross cutting of battle scenes and brief phone calls than we did in the entire first hour of the film.
Slowly Sam becomes obsessed with his mission in Africa, rescuing and caring for dispossessed children. Each time he returns home he becomes more distant and irritable until finally his desire to help the Sudanese people becomes a morose death wish. This sets up the film’s final act in which Sam must again seek redemption. By this time though the emotional heft of the journey has been so weighted down by excess plot and time spent, it’s a little hard to feel the pay off.
Essentially Machine Gun Preacher is too long by nearly an hour and has too much plot by half. The performances shine occasionally. One often believes Gerard Butler’s sense of righteous drive and Michelle Monaghan as his wife has maternal concern nicely sewn up. But the real scene-stealer is Michael Shannon, as a haunted former drug addict rescued by his friend Sam. Shannon’s narrow opportunity to communicate this character’s journey leaves little room for performance, only a handful of scenes, but he makes every one of them count.
The film ends with footage of the real people portrayed in the film and the last shot is of the real Sam Childers addressing the Camera with the line, “If someone came in and stole your family member and I said I could get them back, would it matter how?” Machine Gun Preacher is utterly fascinated with its subject but by focusing first on a sensationalized portrayal of his sin/redemption, leading to his action hero rise to a dusty long suffering glory and then making a moral argument in favor of his methods, works simultaneously at three messages, none of which entirely benefit from being weighed down by the other two.