Based on the remarkable true story of Sam Childers, a violent, drug-addicted ex-con, who upon finding God became a humanitarian, “Machine Gun Preacher,” directed by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”) from a screenplay by Jason Keller, making his silver screen debut, manages to soldier on past its flaws and develop into a powerful and engaging film that reminds us to reach out a lending hand to those who are in need.
The film begins in 2003 on a harrowing note as we witness the slaughter of a Ugandan village by the Lord’s Resistance Army and a boy forced to commit a brutal act of violence. The film then flashes back, a few years prior, to a Pennsylvania prison where Childers (Gerard Butler) has been serving hard time. Upon his release, Childers returns home to find that his stripper wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) has not only quit stripping, but also found God. Stunned by Lynn’s newfound faith, Childers storms out of the house, hops on his Harley and heads to a local biker bar, where he reconnects with his old buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon) and quickly reverts back to his old ways. He and Donnie spend their time smoking, drinking, shooting heroin and robbing drug dealers at gun point.
One night, after nearly stabbing a homeless man to death, Childers realizes the errors of his ways. The next day Childers goes to church with Lynn and their young daughter Paige, where he is baptized and converted to Christianity. Almost immediately, Childers gives up drinking and drugs, opens his own construction company and moves his family into a bigger home. This transformation from druggie, ex-con to well-to-do family man is greatly sugarcoated and happens far too swiftly. (His daughter also ages from youngster to teen far too quickly.)
After hearing a visiting minister speak about lending a helping hand to the children of Africa, Childers volunteers to go to Uganda to help construct a church. While there he befriends Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), a freedom fighter for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, who takes Childers to war-torn Sudan, where the Lord’s Resistance Army is brutalizing the country.
Appalled by the horrible atrocities committed at the hands of the LRA, Childers vows to help the children of Sudan anyway he can. He builds an orphanage and leads armed missions deep into Sudan to retrieve abducted children. Back in his home state of Pa., Childers also builds the Shekinah Fellowship Church, a community church meant to help those who have lost their way and to collect donations for his work in Sudan.
These trips soon begin to take a toll on Childers and his family. Exposed to more and more carnage, he returns home filled with more and more rage, lashing out at Lynn, Paige, Donnie and those who refuse to donate money.
Forster with the help of cinematographer Roberto Schaefer does well behind the camera. Forster and Schaefer utilize high-definition digital cameras, which give the film a grainy and gritty look. They also capture some great visuals of the Sudan wilderness.
Forster also shows great tact during many of the emotional scenes. In one, Childers is consoled by a young African child. In another, Childers finds time to call his daughter to play their nightly rhyming game.
Keller shows promise with his expansive script, spanning years of Childers life from drug addicted criminal to a man of God, albeit a violent one. This is also where the script falters as Keller expects us to just accept Childers’ transformation at face value. It would have been nice to see his battle to beat his drug addiction. Keller does much better during the scenes in Sudan and exploring the toll these trips take on Childers and his family.
The acting is what keeps the film afloat. Butler (“300”) puts in a powerhouse performance as a man who after years of criminal behavior finds new focus. Butler is also surrounded by a solid supporting cast. Monaghan (“Source Code”) is terrific as Childers’ supportive wife. The typically great Shannon (“The Runways”) does well as Childers’ close friend and struggling addict. Savane is terrific as an SPLA freedom fighter who befriends Childers and accompanies him on rescue missions. Madeline Carroll (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”) as Childers’ teen daughter is part of a few touching moments.
Asche & Spencer give the film a harrowing and affecting score, giving the film an added emotional weight. The film also features a nice mix of rock songs. Notable mentions are “Saturday Night Special,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “The Keeper,” a powerful song written for the film and performed by Chris Cornell.
“Machine Gun Preacher” like the man at its core may not be perfect, but thanks to an electrifying performance by Butler and a powerful message about helping those in need, this is a film that should be seen. If only to give people insight into the plight of the children of Sudan and the horrors they continue to face to this day.
(“Machine Gun Preacher” is rated R for sexuality, violence, disturbing images, drug use and language.)
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