Machine Gun Preacher Not a Misfire
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Apr 30, 2013
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)
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.
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.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the “f”-word; several other uses of foul language; crude sexual reference; racial epithets.
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: All three depicted; scenes in a bar; characters are shown taking and injecting drugs intravenously; a man overdoses.
- Sex/Nudity:Sam and Lynn have sex in a car after Sam is released from prison, but remain clothed; later, Lynn rubs against Sam’s groin area; kissing; a reference to Lynn’s past as a stripper, and encouragement by Sam for her take it up again; Lynn shown in her panties and a night shirt.
- Violence/Crime:Village raids in Africa; children and adults gunned down; a boy is forced to kill his mother; burned corpses; a land mine explodes, followed by an image of the child killed by it; vomiting; a hitchhiker attacks Sam and Donnie, but is seriously hurt by Sam; Sam wields a gun when breaking into a drug den to rescue Donnie; Sam and his team shoot and are shot at in Africa; a woman shown with her lips cut off; a bar fight.
- Marriage:Sam’s sense of what God is telling him to do strains his marriage to Lynn.
Religion:“God helped me change,” Lynn tells Sam after he insists she return to stripping; Sam tells Donnie that Lynn “found Jesus,” and Donnie replies, “better him than the milkman”; church services include hymn-singing, an altar call and a baptism; Sam says an African political leader “calls himself a Christian, but I say he’s Satan”; Sam tells Lynn God spoke to him, and he has to build a church; when Sam’s orphanage in Africa is burned down, Lynn tells him, “God gave you a purpose. Build it again”; Sam tells others that if he has to cut back his work in Africa, “the devil has won”; Sam is asked, “Do you really think God’s going to forgive us for everything we’ve done?”; a woman tells Sam that Africans say he has special powers and can’t be killed by bullets; Sam says, “I’m done with the Lord. He turned his back on me”; Sam is shown reading a Bible and preaching.
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