Machine Gun Preacher: Toronto Film Review

An impressively heroic true-life story that unfortunately doesn’t go far enough in examining its unusual hero.

Director Marc Forster tackles the highly dramatic life of Sam Childers, a "hillbilly from Pennsylvania" who built and still violently defends an orphanage in war-torn southern Sudan.

There’s almost too much story for one film in Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher. True stories can be like that and the life of Sam Childers is, let’s say, not uneventful. An ex-con, biker and all-around hell-raiser, Sam found God and launched his own successful construction business. But he found his true “calling” when he built his own community church in Pennsylvania and began to preach there, then had the unlikely notion to go to Sudan in sub-Sahara Africa to build an orphanage and help fight the ruthless warlords who prey upon Sudanese youths in the ongoing civil-war in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda.


The biggest challenge in bringing such a life to the screen, even greater than cramming in all the key incidents, is to avoid hagiography. Forster and his writer Jason Keller don’t completely resist that temptation.

Relativity Media has plenty of marketing hooks when the film rolls out later this month and certainly critics will rave about Gerard Butler’s fast-and-furious performance as Sam Childers. But one can’t escape the nagging feeling that the film doesn’t dig deeply enough into its real-life hero. The film doesn’t explore all those “whys” and “whats.”

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Why does Sam find God? Oh sure, you see him get out of stir and immediately take to his old, nasty habits and realize that this life will literally be the death of him. Motive enough to quit drugs and crime, for sure, but why God? It could have been AA or a real job or simply his love for his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) and daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll). But since Preacher is part of the title, the surrender to a higher being needs better explanation.

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Sam does notsurrender his impetuous, headstrong biker personality though so his drive in all areas — building a church, preaching, rushing off to a war zone or harassing everyone he knows for money for his orphanage — stops just this side of mania.

But why Africa? America doesn’t lack for orphans or inner-city war zones. And what was it about war that Sam didn’t understand? The movie portrays him as totally unprepared defensively the first time rebels attack and burn down his orphanage.

The film does a better job organizing Sam’s chaotic life into two locations, small-town Pennsylvania and the African bush, and the emotional tug-of-war within Sam between these two places. This does reach a crisis point when Sam pores his family’s money and most of his heart into the orphanage. Then a little orphan, who has been otherwise mute, gives the adult a firm talking-to and the crisis is averted.

Scenes such as this — which may not be fictional but certainly feel like they are — are all too common in Keller’s screenplay. There are other predictable scenes involving Sam’s junkie best friend (Michael Shannon, who is always good) and family as well as moments in Sudan that act more as signposts in the evolving mind-set of the film’s hero than as good drama.

Another nagging problem is for a film that spends so much time in Africa (production took place in South Africa), why do we spend so much time with white people? One African solider gets significant screen time, Souleymane Sy Savane’s Deng, but his main usefulness is as Sam’s guide, translator and confidante. He is barely a character.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the other half of the title, the Machine Gun part. Sam confidently believes in vigilantism. As portrayed, he heads his own small army and wants the Godly to be warriors rather than shepherds. The film accepts this without judgment, which is fair enough, but you long for a moment like the one in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence must admit he likes shedding blood. Machine Gun Preacher nicely balances the action and drama, uses its locations well and has the good grace to celebrate a relatively unknown do-gooder, whatever his motivations may be. It’s a solid, worthy effort, but doesn’t like to ask too many questions.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Relativity Media)
production companies: Safady Entertainment/Apparatus/GG Filmz/1984 PDC/MPower Pictures/ITS Capital/Merlina Entertainment
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, Madeline Carroll
Director: Marc Forster.
Screenwriter: Jason Keller.
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Craig Chapman, Deborah Giarratana, Marc Forster, Gary Safady.
Executive producer: Gerard Butler, Kyle Dean Jackson, Myles Nestel, Louise Rosner, Adi Shankar, Alan Siegel, Spencer Silna, Bradford Simpson, Bill O’Kane.
Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer.
Production designer: Philip Messina.
Music: Asche & Spencer.
Costume designer: Frank L. Fleming.
Editor: Matt Chesse.
Sales: Lionsgate International.
R rating, 128 minutes.