Movie Review: Machine Gun Preacher
Rating: R (violent content, disturbing images, language, a scene of sexuality, some drug use)
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: November 2, 2011
Directed by: Marc Forster
Stars: 3 out of 5
"Machine Gun Preacher" centers on Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a bike gang member who is being released from prison as the film begins. He was a drug addict before his imprisonment and was estranged from his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), whom he verbally abused in a way that will likely make your skin crawl. You may not initially picture Sam as the hero of the film, but he soon becomes an antihero of sorts.
Before he can become the antihero, he needs to sober up, which is easier said than done. Director Marc Forster takes great pains to show how fast Sam goes from getting out of jail to being on the brink of death due to his addictions. Finally, something inside him snaps, and he barges into the church where Lynn had turned for guidance about her life with Sam. He asks for forgiveness of his sins and help turning his life around.
Sam becomes a model churchgoer and avidly listens when a visiting preacher from Africa comes in and gives a lecture about the war horrors occurring there. Sam decides it is his calling to help rebuild the homes that have been destroyed in these brutal civil wars, so he and his best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon), also a recovering addict, head to Uganda. From there, they travel to Sudan, the southern half of which is largely controlled by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a militia of sorts that forces young children to become soldiers against their will.
Though Sam had heard of the atrocities being committed by the LRA, it really hits home when he sees these young boys being kidnapped and enslaved as soldiers. He has a daughter himself, though he wasn't there for her during her early years because he was in jail. He simply can't fathom what it would be like if his own kid was forced into one of these child armies.
Sam can't sit by idly while all of this is going on, so he begins to build an orphanage to take in children who have escaped from the LRA. He is warned by longtime aid workers that what he is doing is dangerous and could get him killed. He decides not to heed the warnings and instead enlists several armed men to go deep into LRA territory to rescue more children to bring to the orphanage. This obviously doesn't sit well with LRA leaders, who retaliate by trying to kill Sam and anyone who is trying to help him.
The scenes of violence are swift, bloody and very frequent during the second half of the film. Forster has no qualms about showing just how bad the war crimes are in Sudan, giving an unflinching look at the reality of child soldiers. The bloodshed is extraordinarily gory and the depiction of child violence is simply haunting. This part of the film feels almost like a documentary rather than a Hollywood production. It will definitely stick with you after the end credits have rolled.
Butler came to fame in the film "300" by showing off his abs and being a strong, reliable soldier. Though he doesn't show off his abs nearly as much here, he imbues Sam with a warrior's mentality that is very similar to his work in "300." The portrayal works on all levels, as you truly believe that Sam is responding to a higher calling, even as the violence in the region escalates because of his actions.
Screenwriter Jason Keller could have easily written dialogue that was overly preachy, particularly in the church scenes. Instead, he chooses to steer clear of becoming sanctimonious, instead focusing on Sam's tunnel vision when it comes to helping the Sudanese child soldiers. He also doesn't paint Sam as a complete hero, since he is still an absentee husband and father. The scenes where Sam tries to strike a balance between his higher calling and family life are particularly poignant, with superb work from Monaghan as his eternally put-upon wife.
"Machine Gun Preacher" manages to strike a balance between faith and violence that is surprisingly harmonious. You would not think that these two things would go together, but Forster makes it work. The film, in fact, is balanced very well, even as the antihero struggles with that very thing.