Giving. How much do we give to others? To what extent can we sacrifice to help people who are suffering? As Americans, what can we do for one another and for others around the world? And how blinded are we to suffering? These, as well as other moral quagmires, are explored in the new film Machine Gun Preacher.
Based on a true story, Gerard Butler (of 300 fame) stars here as Sam Childers. As the film begins, Sam is an active member of a biker gang and is being released from jail. His wife Lynn, played by Michelle Monaghan, meets him and from their immediate jump to having sex in the back of her car it is clear that these two do passionately love each other. However, once at home with his wife and daughter, Sam quickly starts acting like a caged animal that is getting restless. Meeting up with his biker buddy, played by Michael Shannon, they quickly go back to their substance abusing and thieving ways. While high, an encounter with a homeless man goes deadly wrong, and Sam is forced into some self realizations. His wife pressures him to go to church, where he becomes a born again Christian.
Following his newfound zeal for doing good, he follows the call of a guest preacher who comes to his church speaking about the people of Sudan needing monetary and volunteer help. Sam’s first trip there is a revelation to him. He is overwhelmed by the plight of the children of Sudanese refugees and the lack of safety that surrounds their orphanage facilities. Children are forced to sleep outside behind concrete walls to avoid kidnapping by militants. Children are captured are tortured. And the lack of proper schools for these kids is appalling. So Sam decides to create a church/school in a pocket of land that experiences daily fighting. Meanwhile, back home, he sets up a ministry to help his parrish there with drug addiction. Bouncing back and forth between two continents, trying to find funding to help everyone, and butting up against both military revolution and American indifference tests his very resolve.
His family accuses him of caring more about children halfway around the world than his own family. He wants to give everything he has to this cause to help these children, to the point of losing most of his own assets and bankrupting his church. Some of the rich Americans he encounters pay him lip service about what an admirable thing he’s doing, but offer little to actually help. While in the Sudan, he ends up having to defend children with military grade weaponry. At one point a drunk in a bar refers to him as a real life Rambo, which isn’t far from the truth.
That moral ambiguity is one of the most interesting things about this story. Gerard Butler’s character is highly moral after making his religious conversion. He seems to exemplify the best of what his Christianity has to offer when it comes to empathy and understanding. But he frequently finds himself having to kill to protect innocents. The movie itself doesn’t really tell you what is right or wrong in this situation, only that he is doing what he feels he must. His former life as a criminal coupled with his current life as a killer who is responsible for others lands Sam firmly in a moral gray area that is quite interesting.
This is also one of the few movies of recent years to take faith seriously. Instead of either just pointing out the hypocrisy of a religious man committing sins or of a fully “red state”-endorsed defense of religious values, the story presents what happens and lets the audience grapple with the issues itself.
The tone of the film is sometimes distractingly uneven. For instance, an early scene has a small boy being forced to club his own mother to death or be forced to be killed himself. Definitely gripping. But while there are other horrible atrocities shown throughout the film, much of the time they don’t quite cause the emotional shock that one would expect. Marc Forster directed this film, and this tone may be a result of his style. While some of his films can truly illicit a gut punch reaction of emotion, some of his more recent films have felt more cool and distant. Monster’s Ball was a terrific movie that got inside it’ characters. And though it was much more mannered, Finding Neverland also packed quite a wallop by the end of its running time. Yet, his outing with the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace, while packing in a lot of action, felt removed from its characters. And Stranger Than Fiction, while quite quirky and wonderful, also seemed to keep some of its characters at arm’s length. Maybe it’s just the sheer amount of story that’s being told here, but while Machine Gun Preacher is intellectually fulfilling, it could thrust the audience a little more inside its world.
But despite all of that, this is a remarkably good film. Some people may roll their eyes thinking of Hotel Rwanda-esque burnout regarding the subject manner. When Hollywood approaches these types of “issue” stories, some can tune out due to avoiding unpleasantness. However, that very reaction is addressed in this tale. At one point, Sam is trying to get yet another loan from the bank. He has no collateral left to get a loan, but he begs the loan officer for just $5000 more dollars for vital supplies the Sudanese children need. The loan officer isn’t mean and doesn’t want to turn him down, but he has no choice. And Butler’s character is pleading with him that Americans haven’t really seen the kind of suffering that is happening on another continent.
One could argue this is another story Hollywood is giving us where we are viewing another culture through a white man’s eyes and how sometimes this is inherently racist. But as a surrogate for the intended American audience, which may be completely ignorant of strife in the Sudan, the story of Sam Childers is a useful way to relay their plight. While not a perfect film, Machine Gun Preacher is engaging and enlightens us about what children are dealing with a half a world away.
Final Grade: B+