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Sunday, March 11, 2012

MACHINE GUN PREACHER (2011) - Review


What It's About

Based on a true story, "Machine Gun Preacher" tells the story of ex-biker turned Christian missionary Sam Childers, played by Gerard Butler. Before seeing the light he had done it all. Drug addiction, alcohool abuse, prison time, but it wasn't until he stabbed someone half to death that he truly felt he was on the edge of a precipice. His wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) persuades him to go to church and receive the Baptism. Through his newfound faith he builds a new life. He founds a construction business and everything seems to be headed in the right direction. He even manages to rescue a friend from his dark past, Donnie (Michael Shannon), who is just as lost as he was. The real focus of the movie, however, is his humanitarian work in South Sudan, where, after seeing the horrors of war during a missionary trip, he decides to build and orphanage for the children of South Sudan. This is not as easy as it seems, and between the constant attacks and village raids of the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army), the need for funding to sustain the orphanage and his own inner turmoil, Childers has a rough road ahead. And sometimes, the only way to fight fire is with fire.


The Good
  • It's always necessary to bring such stories to light and Sam Childers' efforts to help the children of Sudan is important and very little known outside of this movie. It also provides necessary exposure for the topic of soldier children.
  • Gerard Butler delivers a riveting performance of a tortured man, driven by the need for salvation, so much so that it becomes obsession, pushing him farther away from his family and friends and even farther away from the salvation he seeks. Butler is charismatic in the lead role, striking just the right balance between likable and tormented, not to mention his already proven ability to be convincing in action roles.
  • This is not an action movie. However, when Childers decides to turn to more radical solutions to keep the children safe, the action set-pieces are effectively staged and appropriately suspenseful.
  • The emotional impact is strong and it packs quite a punch. The sight of massacred children is revolting and makes you think about the kind of war in which armies are capable of such atrocities. It's hard to watch, but poignant.


The Bad
  • The movie shifts too much around its various topics. It's torn between the importance of the events in South Sudan and the inspirational story of Sam Childers. The pacing and focus are uneven and each of these stories are affected by it.
  • Not enough thought is given to the paradox of Sam Childers, the man of God and the man of violence and how the two sides of this character fit together. It hints at it, but never really works towards a real exploration of the character (also see The In-Between section below).
  • The supporting characters are underdeveloped and their relationships with Childers only serve as plot devices. It would have made a much more interesting movie if each of these characters were given a chance to provide the movie with some texture. His wife, his daughter, his friends, his allies are all just faces sketched around Childers.

The In-Between
  • You never fully understand Childers. I suppose it's not entirely necessary, because the focus of the movie is mostly on his cause, but he is the protagonist after all. He should have been written as complex a character as I'm sure the real Childers is.
  • Like I said, this isn't an action movie. Still, the filmmakers handle some of the fighting scenes a little too much like action and less like war. I suppose it's not a major gripe, but it can feel distracting.


Conclusions

"Machine Gun Preacher" is a good movie despite its uneven narrative and sketchy characterizations. It works better in individual scenes than as a whole, but director Marc Forster ("The Kite Runner", "Monster's Ball") manages to deliver a decent movie that sheds light on a relevant story. The humanitarian elements are clearly what hold the movie up despite all its flaws. Butler is a solid lead and grips our attention when the screenplay fails to rise to the occasion. The story would probably be more fitting of a documentary than a feature film, particularly one as uneven as this one, but it's worth seeing at least once.