Posted: 09/16/2011

 

Machine Gun Preacher

(2011)

by Adam Mohrbacher




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In liberal-minded Hollywood, the African continent seems to represent a prime opportunity. Over the years this has proven to be excellent fodder for a variety of directors, from Ed Zwick to Robert Redford, to present lavish and scenic romances or sanctimonious social statements on the region’s seemingly eternal geo-political and ethnic conflicts. The new film by Marc Forster, Machine Gun Preacher, falls into the latter camp. However, despite bowing to several of the clichés inherent to this genre, the film strives to present its subject in a somewhat less rosy light. Also, the story, which chronicles one man’s humanitarian work in the midst of the Sudanese war, is commendable for not bowing to censorship. There are several absolutely blistering images of the implications of the region’s violence, some of which could have been ripped from the deepest annals of the Saw franchise.

Machine Gun Preacher relates the story of Sam Childers, portrayed with great gusto and ample teeth mashing by Gerard Butler. An ice-cold chill struck me early on in the story in a sequence where Butler’s character is released from jail. Stomping out of the clink, dressed outrageously in black leather biker gear and sporting a hairstyle that is positioned precariously close to a mullet, I braced myself for yet another Butler ham-fest, something in line with his odious work in 300 and The Bounty Hunter. Still, I was soon surprised to find myself somewhat involved with his character’s multiple transformations and I am pleased to say that his acting in Machine Gun Preacher (barring an accent that seems to consistently oscillate throughout the film) probably ranks up there with the best work that Butler has ever done.

Forster’s film covers Childers’ transformation from a biker/criminal/thug/borderline sociopath into a more demure citizen following a religious conversion. Subsequently, upon learning about the human cost of the Sudanese civil war, Childers is mobilized through his faith to also contribute something to the plight of the Sudanese children and begins to invest his time and money into constructing a compound that functions as a sort of sanctuary for displaced orphans. Of course, as in most stories that focus on an idealist chasing his passions, personal, political, and especially financial problems begin to plague his endeavors.

Some of Childer’s personal problems are manifested in the role of Lynn, Childer’s long-suffering wife, dutifully embodied by Michelle Monaghan (who is starting to become the go-to gal for every colorless girlfriend part or supportive wife figure that male screenwriters concoct). This is primarily where Machine Gun Preacher begins to fall prey to clichés, with Childer’s constantly butting heads with his wife and daughter over his potentially self-destructive altruism. Also, these scenes painfully illustrate one of the more perturbing attributes of the picture, which is that we, the audience, aren’t really given enough information or enough real insight to understand just why Childer’s is so motivated that he is willing to risk almost everything about his own existence for his humanitarian cause.

Butler, who, as we all know, is no stranger to taking parts that ask for him to get intense, should be credited for allowing us to witness an element of vulnerability behind the violence and the man behind the muscles. The emotional volatility of his performance feels legitimate, and while the murkiness of his motivations is distracting, Butler and Forster manage to present a figure that, despite miraculously transforming into a Rambo-like figure during the scenes where Childer’s is called upon to violently defend his orphans, seems genuinely invested in the cause. We can and do root for this passionate brute.

Eventually the film does also engage with simple stereotypes, where the idealist encounters crass Western apathy as his selflessness grows more and more pronounced. However, this is countered by several scenes that clearly and profoundly illustrate just how a Childer’s unique form of brutal humanitarianism fails to perhaps address the complexity of some of the issues plaguing the African nation. So we are left with a stark dichotomy. Forster’s film presents us with a unique hero and makes interesting comments about the nature of fighting fire with fire, but is undercut by ambiguous motivation and social stereotypes. And, while the filmmakers do not really valorize Childer’s behavior, there are some moments of absolutely painful moralizing that will make even the most sentimentally minded of film lovers wince with disdain.

As with most social issue bio-pics, we know that, by the time that written summation of the film’s events or message slams onto the screen, we are supposed to feel a call to action. However, with Machine Gun Preacher, we are more acutely aware of how hard the film seemed to be laboring in order to cultivate these emotions. The film benefits from Butler’s focused and committed performance and also from the film taking the time to slyly suggest that a simple desire to do good and a strange affinity for operating machine-guns might be a tad blunt in confronting the racial, political, and economic strife of developing nations. Still, the film does not simply let this man’s story speak for itself or devote more time to fleshing out his motivations and addressing just why religion and African humanitarianism was the path that Childer’s went down when seeking a more positive life direction. It just seems that he did it because it was the “right” thing to do. That doesn’t make for the most compelling or interesting viewing.

Still, despite these drawbacks, I can’t pan Machine Gun Preacher because it is simply so earnest and does, in many parts, succeed in holding one’s attention and showing us not only the horrors of Africa’s perpetual conflicts but how once again these struggles can be fashioned into a halfway decent story and delivered to audiences a world away.

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic living in Chicago.



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