“… one of the wild ones. Oh, we’ve some of them in every generation. You can’t tame them, you can’t bring them into the community and make them live in law and order. They go their own way. If they’re saints they go and tend lepers or something, or get themselves martyred in jungles. If they’re bad lots they commit the atrocities that you don’t like hearing about: And sometimes – they’re just wild! They’d have been all right, I supposed, born in another age when it was everyone’s hand for himself, everyone fighting to keep life in their veins. Hazards at every turn, danger all around them, and they themselves perforce dangerous to others. That world would have suited them; they’d have been at home in it. This one doesn’t.”
– from Agatha Christie’s “At Bertram’s Hotel”(1965)
In my opinion, Sam Childers neatly fits into the category described in “At Bertram’s Hotel”, one of my personal favorite Agatha Christie mystery novels. While watching real Sam Childers in the footage shown during its end credit, I could see that what I thought about him and his story before watching “Machine Gun Preacher” was probably correct. He was a macho guy with a gun when he was an outlaw in US, and he is still a tough guy with a gun when he is a preacher in Sudan, where his violence can be justified pretty easily. Well, he is protecting these helpless children with nowhere to go, isn’t he?
His story is surely a compelling case of “life imitates trashy art”. Childers was an ex-con with the long history of violence, but he eventually found the religion and became a preacher, and then he later came to believe that God told him to go to Africa to help the people living there. He did go to Africa, and he soon got that nickname, machine gun preacher, while working with SPLA(Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) for saving the children in danger. Raise your hand if you do not think this story sounds like the synopsis of some B-action film.
While it seems he did some good works including building and managing the orphanage for them, Childers is still a controversial figure in the ongoing civil war in Sudan due to his active participation in the war, and his contribution in the war Sudan is questionable to some degrees. I am sure he regards himself as a Christian soldier, but not many people agree with him, so we can say that makes him a more interesting subject, but “Machine Gun Preacher” does not live up to the potential inside its subject. While hesitating between action and serious drama, its well-intentioned but superficial screenplay already loses its way around the time it arrives at its ‘crisis’ moment, and even that moment is resolved into a lackluster ending which left me unsatisfied.
When we meet Childers(Gerard Butler) in the film at first, he has just gotten out of the prison after serving his sentence. He is greeted by his wife Lynn(Michelle Monaghan) waiting for him outside the building, but he instantly shows his unpleasant sides not long before he returns to his sweet home. He becomes mad and furious at his wife because she quits her previous job at a strip bar after finding the religion, in which he does not have the slightest interest. And he also resumes his violent outlaw life with his close friend Donnie(Michael Shannon).
But, what do you know, after one dramatic incident, he is also drawn to the church in no more than 5 minutes. He becomes more responsible than before: he says goodbye to his former life and earns the money through a decent job. Luckily, he gets the chance to start his own construction business, so his family, who has lived in a small trailer, is very happy to get a big house surrounded by forest. In addition, he becomes a preacher working as the guiding light for the sinners like him. I know some of you are probably giggling while reading my description, but Childers is serious about his quest for redemption and so is the movie.
On one day, he decides to go to Africa for helping people living there after hearing about their plight at his church. He goes to Northern Uganda, and, while working on the construction site, he comes to witness the atrocities committed in that area and Southern Sudan. He becomes determined to help the refugees, especially those poor kids who lost their parents. He buys the land, and tries to build an orphanage, but his place is not so far from the active area of LRA(Lord’s Resistance Army). The movie does not explain well about how he comes to choose to buy this dangerous place, but he is willing to protect the kids with his guns, anyway.
While I can understand Childers’ determination a little at least, I am also well aware of the complexity of the civil war. It goes without saying that LRA has committed lots of horrible deeds to more than 400,000 of innocent civilians in the country under the command of its leader Joseph Kony(we see some of their gruesome atrocities in the film and they are surely horrific enough to make me cringe in horror), but we also know this war is not a simple matter of black and white, like other civil wars in recent history. Through one supporting character, the movie throws an interesting point about what Childers does to protect the children, but it does not delve deeply enough into that question. Yes, he has a noble intention at least his view, but what is the difference between him and enemies if both use the violence? I have some suspicion that he feels more at home in Afriaca because nobody blames you for shooting guns.
Besides that ambiguity, the film is seriously marred by weak story and shallow characterization. Gerard Butler is appropriately cast as the title role, but I saw him delivering a more interesting performance with military uniform and guns in “Coriolanus”(2011) – and he was as good as his co-actors in case of delivering those wonderful Shakespeare lines in that movie. Michelle Monaghan is wasted as a wife tolerating and standing by her husband because that is all she is required to do in the story. Although he is tasked with a thankless job as an addict friend of Childers, Michael Shannon again proves that he is the master of intense creepiness who will be the successor of Christopher Walken.
I believe the director Marc Forster and the screenplay writer Jason Keller really tried to make a good story out of their material, but their result is an awkward, disjointed character drama which also clumsily attempts to be an action film. Compared to its disturbing moments, its drama is deficient in believability, and I was not involved much in Childers’ story except caring about the local people struggling through danger. To be sure, the movie reminds me of one of the ongoing problems in our world – but a lot more is required to make a good drama.