There's a powerful story in the life of Sam Childers, a junkie turned activist for Sudanese orphans, but Machine Gun Preacher, from Monster's Ball director Marc Forster, feels more like a highlight reel of Childers' highs and lows. Gerard Butler gives a committed performance in the lead role, weathering much emotional turbulence, and Forster wastes little time on unnecessary exposition, choosing instead to send Childers to Africa soon after he hits rock bottom. Childers' Jekyll and Hyde personality makes it difficult to completely root for him, and, if Machine Gun Preacher is accurate, Childers is not afraid to combat violence with violence.
The Sam Childers that leaves a Pennsylvania prison after another short stint verbally abuses his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), ignores his children, and quickly heads to a local bar to score a heroin fix from his buddy, Donnie (Michael Shannon). I have not read Another Man's War, Childers' memoir upon which Machine Gun Preacher is based, but am surprised how volatile and hateful Childers was before he turned his life around. This happens after Childers almost kills a drifter who tries to rob Donnie. Lynn takes her husband to church, where he is baptized and learns of the church's work in Africa.
Nearly forty minutes pass before Childers first lands in Africa, as Machine Gun Preacher shows him opening a construction business, saving his family from a tornado and organizing his own judgment-free congregation. These opening scenes, especially Childers' bouts with addiction and violence, feel more like quick-burst highlights than part of a developing narrative, and I kept waiting for the main story to begin. Once in Sudan, Childers begins helping orphans and villagers threatened by the Lord's Resistance Army, led by guerilla Joseph Kony, and builds a new orphanage for the local children. When the LRA destroys the building, Childers teeters on the edge of defeat, but a pep talk from Lynn strengthens his resolve.
Machine Gun Preacher is a poor title for this film, and makes it sound more like a grindhouse flick than a serious drama. Machine Gun Preacher skimps on the details of Sudan's civil war, but shows the great atrocities that befall the Sudanese people. Mothers and children are gunned down by the LRA, and Childers fights for the funds to save more local children from starvation and murder. Other aid workers try to stay below the radar, but Childers brings the fight to LRA soldiers.
Childers' work is admirable and important, but Machine Gun Preacher left me ambivalent about the man. Even after Childers cleans up, he remains quick to anger and takes his frustrations out on those around him. His devotion to the Sudanese children takes Childers away from home for long periods of time, and he neglects his own children and wife. When his daughter wants to rent a limousine with her friends before a formal dance, Childers hatefully chastises her for wasting money. Childers also betrays Donnie, who gets clean and helps out Lynn when her husband is gone, calling him a "stray dog" and threatening to hurt him.
Pictures of the real Childers and his family shown during the end credits indicate that his wife and daughters were heavily involved in the orphanage, too. Machine Gun Preacher might have been a better film if these characters had active roles instead of staying home and shouldering Childers' mood swings. There is a good story buried in Machine Gun Preacher, but Forster too often looks to the sensational to move things forward. Instead of making a coherent film, Forster created a handsomely shot, two-hour trailer for his leading man.
PICTURE AND SOUND:
Per their policy, Fox's screening disc does not include the final transfer or soundtrack, so I cannot comment on these areas of the disc. If a retail copy becomes available to me, I will update my review accordingly.
The DVD includes only two bonus features: Making the Music for Machine Gun Preacher (14:00), a nice piece about composer Thad Spencer's score, and the film's theatrical trailer (2:29).
Too often, Machine Gun Preacher, about junkie-turned-activist Sam Childers' work for Sudanese orphans, feels like a highlight reel of Childers' flaws and accomplishments. Director Marc Forster steers clear of subtle exposition, but allows star Gerard Butler many chances to fight, curse and scream in his quest to save orphans from the violent Lord's Resistance Army. Machine Gun Preacher tells an important story, but is more sensational than affecting. Rent It.