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Machine Gun Preacher - Review

Machine Gun Preacher

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

THERE’S so much at play in Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher that it should come as no surprise to learn that it struggles to cope with it all.

The true story of how, in a nutshell, former biker and drug dealer Sam Childers turned away from his dubious past to become a machine gun wielding liberator of refugee children in war-torn Sudan, it works on a scratch-the-surface level, especially when depicting events in the notorious Khmer Rouge.

But it lacks any real complexity when it comes to exploring Childers past or even his present, only touching on some valid questions about the morality at stake.

As a result, much of what happens feels episodic, especially when joining the dots between the various key moments in Childers’ transition.

The film begins as Childers (played with suitable intensity by Gerard Butler) emerges from prison for an unspecified crime. He subsequently becomes angry and potentially violent with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) for giving up stripping in favour of God and quickly hooks up with a drug-addicted best friend (Michael Shannon) to participate in another armed robbery.

When that turns violent with potentially fatal consequences, Childers has an epiphany and turns to God for forgiveness, forming his own congregation and then learning about the plight of African children at the hands of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).

Deciding to put his building skills to better use, Childers travels to Sudan to both lend a hand and find out more and eventually hooks up with the local militia to build an orphanage and take on the LRA in the only way he knows how.

The ensuing film juggles Childers’ time in Africa with his life back in the US, as he desperately attempts to raise the funds needed to continue his relief work while coping with his continued responsibility to his wife and daughter.

But while inspiring in places and savage at others, especially during its African sequences, Forster’s film too often feels like it’s treating its main protagonist with kid gloves, especially when it comes to exploring the motivations behind his decisions.

The overnight turnaround from potentially murderous bad-boy to God-seeking everyman feels rushed and under-explained, as do several of the latter moments involving his struggle to find funds for his African orphans at the expense of both his family and his best friend, a combination of several people in Childers’ life.

As a result, the scenes in America, especially, feel as though they are only really scratching the surface of the emotional and ethical complexity at play, while short-changing both of the talents of Shannon and Monaghan in what should have been far meatier roles.

That said, Butler provides a towering presence as Childers, tapping into the often violent passion with which he conducts himself, as well as the self-doubt and despair that accompanies much of what he opens himself up to in Africa.

Forster, too, ensures that the African scenes carry a heavy emotional wallop while hinting at the Western attitudes of indifference that have enabled the atrocities in Sudan to continue virtually unchecked for so long.

A final scene that exposes the danger and enormity of Childers’ ongoing task, coupled with some shocking real-life statistics, really does provide a sobering conclusion that could, arguably, leave viewers wanting to find out more.

Hence, while far from perfect as a movie, Forster’s dual objective in highlighting both the ongoing plight of Africa and Childers’ continued bravery is achieved, if only on a superficial level.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 127mins
UK Release Date: November 2, 2011