<i>Machine Gun Preacher</i> Not a Misfire

Christian Hamaker

DVD Release Date: June 5, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: September 30, 2011 (wide)
Rating: R (for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 127 min.
Director: Marc Forster
Actors: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, Souleymane Sy Savane

Tired of Christian films that make faith out to be something sweet and respectable? Then try Machine Gun Preacher, the story of a man who gets saved from a life of depravity and who then tries to save others from the ravages of ethnic bloodshed in Africa. It’s a film about Christians that doesn’t shy away from spiritual darkness before life in Christ, nor from the temptations that follow salvation. But it also sends mixed signals about what viewers are supposed to find admirable in its title character.

SEE ALSO: Machine Gun Preacher: Man on a Mission

Sam Childers (Gerard Butler, How to Train Your Dragon) is just out of jail, eager to return to his life of drug abuse with his friend (Donnie). His wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan, Source Code), greets him outside of prison, but has a surprise for him once they return home: She’s changed, and she won’t be returning to the strip club where she once worked. “God found me. He helped me change,” she tells Sam, who wants nothing to do with her newfound faith.

Instead, Sam hangs around with his druggie friend Donnie (Michael Shannon, Jonah Hex). One night, they pick up a hitchhiker who puts a knife to Donnie’s neck. Sam retaliates and nearly kills the drifter, then later attends Lynn’s church and responds to an altar call (“God was looking out for both of us,” he says later of the still-alive hitchhiker).

The film’s unblinking depiction of Sam’s depravity—he swears like a sailor and relishes his rough lifestyle—makes his salvation memorable, but the film’s message becomes murkier thereafter. Although ambiguity can be a strength (think of Robert Duvall’s towering performance as a self-justifying preacher in The Apostle), director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, The Kite Runner) and writer Jason Keller portray Sam with clear admiration that they want audiences to share, at least during the early scenes of Sam’s born-again life. When Sam tells Lynn that God spoke to him directly about building a church in the U.S., and an orphanage and school in Africa, no one questions him. When the home church’s speaker fails to show for its first service, Sam delivers the sermon and is soon preaching regularly. We’re not told much, if anything, about the church’s structure—it remains unclear to whom Sam answers, if anyone.

The film bypasses such matters to focus on Sam’s work in Africa, where he sets out to rescue orphans and other victims of the Sudanese civil war. Sam’s awakening to the plight of the orphans and of those forced to fight at a young age is the movie’s strong suit—a consciousness-raiser for Americans and others who might not know of the atrocities associated with the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the work of John Garang to bring peace to the region.

As he becomes more committed to the mission in Africa, Sam’s relationships to those back home begin to unravel. He demands the full and complete commitment of his family and congregation to his humanitarian efforts. Here the filmmakers clearly want to depict Sam as out-of-control and reckless, but the question remains as to whether this is a break from his earlier life in Christ, or an extension of tendencies that were there from the moment of Sam’s conversion. The film leans toward taking Sam’s early Christian zeal as unassailable when a more nuanced treatment of Sam’s post-conversion actions might have made for a more complex character.

Butler’s limitations as an actor can’t be discounted when assessing the film’s drawbacks, although he’s better in this film than he has been in most of his other performances. Shannon turns in another fine performance as Donnie—good enough that viewers might wish he were in the film more than he is. Meanwhile, Monaghan’s religious influence on Sam could have stood a more in-depth treatment than a few blunt lines of dialogue and church-service scenes.

The story’s conclusion only underlines the film’s mixed message, providing a send-off designed to demonstrate defiant determination in the face of spiritual and political enemies, but clouded by Sam’s continuing reliance on violence as a means to the end he seeks in Africa.

In its exposure of the problems of Sudanese Christians for a broad audience, Machine Gun Preacher hits its target, but as a model of bold faith, it raises more questions than it answers. Those with the stomach and soul to digest the “R”-rated content might find some rewards here, but a good theological grounding is the most important ingredient for understanding the pluses and minuses of Machine Gun Preacher.

CAUTIONS:

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

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