REVIEW: Machine Gun Preacher Fails as a Tale of Rebirth, Redemption and Kicking Ass
There's a theoretical sweet spot to be found for Machine Gun Preacher -- that of the multi-quadrant film, as the marketers say. It aims to be a hard-charging actioner that's also a based-on-a-true-story tale of rebirth and uplift; an earnest, somber look at conflicts in Sudan that's simultaneously a faith-centric, family-oriented redemption song. Directed by Marc Forster (of, appropriately enough, Quantum of Solace and Finding Neverland) from a screenplay by Jason Keller (who's also credited as one of the writers on Tarsem Singh's upcoming take on Snow White), Machine Gun Preacher always seems aware that it's working off ripe material, but can't fit it into beats that work on-screen.
And really, what could be riper for adaptation than the life of Sam Childers, a onetime biker gang member who finds religion, starts his own church, builds an orphanage just north of the Ugandan border and defends it from attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army using the weapons expertise he learned while holding up drug dens? The man the locals start referring to in hushed tones as "the white preacher," a term that's a twist on the one used for professional big-game hunters in the colonial days, should be an irresistible figure, the unlikely do-gooder in a desperate situation. But Machine Gun Preacher doesn't allow him moments of triumph -- it's a struggle throughout, which may be truer to life but makes for a wearying middlebrow movie that doesn't make its days of self-improvement and altruism seem any brighter than its days of smack addiction and violence.
Gerard Butler, who's honed his screen persona as a brutish, charismatic jerk, isn't a bad fit for the role of Sam, even if he's more believable spraying bullets and stabbing hitchhikers than he is delivering a sermon. He's got the swagger of someone who doesn't expect to be messed with from the moment he first appears on-screen, on his way to being released from prison, his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) waiting to pick him up outside. Since he's been gone, Lynn's discovered Jesus and given up stripping, and Sam finds to his dismay that the trailer in which the two live with their daughter Paige (Ryan Campos when younger, Madeline Carroll as a tween) is free of cigarettes and beer. Sam's not so quick to come to God -- he falls back easily into his old biker life, reconnecting with his friend Donnie (the always welcome Michael Shannon, so bug-eyed in his early scenes he's almost a cartoon character), shooting up in bathrooms, waking up on the floor amidst beer bottles, Paige playing nearby. When he does get baptized, with Lynn and his mother, Daisy (Kathy Baker), looking at him beseechingly until he goes up, it's not an ecstatic moment, just another milestone in a shifting life.
While there's something to be said for Machine Gun Preacher's reluctance to dramatize itself along the lines of the typical biopic arc it theoretically follows, it makes the changes taking place in its main character difficult to discern until he abruptly acts on them. Sam's decision to go to Africa for a few weeks of aid work, prompted by a guest speaker from Uganda appearing at the family's church, comes as a surprise to his family and to the audience, who haven't been given many clues as to the depth of his religious convictions. After witnessing atrocities on that trip, including a woman whose lips were cut off by rebels for talking back and a little boy whose legs are blown off by a mine, Sam comes back possessed by a desire to build both a church near his home and an orphanage in Africa that seems manic and a little worrying instead of inspired, a reaction reinforced by the cautiousness of Lynn's support.
Because Machine Gun Preacher chugs along like a relay race instead of coming to a point of crescendo, it's easier to wonder what it's actually about: Is Sam heroic for what he does or naïve and presumptuous? Does he get mired in the impossibility of saving everyone from the heinousness of what's happening in the area or has he always just been an asshole with violent tendencies underneath? These ambiguities don't seem intentional, they seem like indecisiveness, like signs of a film in need of either more focus or less material. When Sam first picks up a gun and blasts rebels attacking the orphanage like Rambo by way of the Peace Corps, it should be the meeting of the film's two halves, of his biker background and his newfound good intentions coming together -- the machine gun preacher, a graphic-novel-worthy character come to life. But that turns into a meditation on the downhill slope of violence that is, given the context, a little irrational, and from there to a portrait of depression brought on by having to choose whom to help and risk letting others die. Films based on true stories often suffer from being made too neat, but in this case some tidying up was called for. Then what should have been a solid, gripping story wouldn't have ended with an ellipsis and a shrug.