Story Too Broad to Execute in ‘Machine Gun Preacher’

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Average: 3.1 (7 votes) Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – When one movie has an ex-con, drug retribution violence, his religious conversion, his building of a church, his preaching, his trip to Southern Sudan in Africa, his opening of an orphanage and his family, then it’s too big a story to tell. Therein lies the challenge for “Machine Gun Preacher.”

Despite a performance of sheer will from Gerard Butler, the loose structure of all that is going on handicaps any true development of character. Besides Butler, the rest of the cast is window dressing, coming on stage to aid or deny him, and then slipping away for several acts until they’re asked to come back and do it again. This is an amazing true story, an American story, but telling it all at once unfortunately subtracts all the juice from its parts.

Sam Childers (Butler) is a hellcat who is let go, in the beginning of the film, from an incarceration. He goes back to his trailer home in Pennsylvania to his kid and his stripper wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan). He is has violent anger, and is not done with dealing drugs and raising hell. His best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon) is his enabler in the pursuit, and soon they are dealing with a revenge beating and possible murder.

The Preacher’s Wife: Gerald Butler as Sam and Michelle Monaghan as Lynn in ‘Machine Gun Preacher’
he Preacher’s Wife: Gerard Butler as Sam and Michelle Monaghan as Lynn in ‘Machine Gun Preacher’
Photo Credit: Phil Bray for © 2011 MGP Productions

When that situation magically takes care of itself, Sam Childers has a religious conversion. He quits partying, starts a successful construction business and hunkers down with his family. His conversion also compels him to preaching, and he builds a church to welcome reprobates like himself. When he goes on a mission in Africa, he gets involved with the genocide in Southern Sudan. He notices the kids left behind from this slaughter, and makes it his life’s work to build an orphanage and take care of as many of those children as he can.

The real Sam Childers is a very sincere individual. His mission, as told to in an interview, is to save as many kids as possible. His story probably would have been best told from the African side. The American set-up was done too simply, and didn’t really resonate once it got to the Sudan. With soft conflict to that point, the impact of the African scenes came off mushy as well, despite the drama of genocide, orphans and Sam’s mercenary soldiering (the “machine gun” in the title).

Gerard Butler might not have been the right choice for Childers, but he does come alive in the few scenes where he actually preaches. There is a honesty and bravado that isn’t in the rest of the film. Butler is driven as Childers, but there is no intensity in that drive, except in the testifying. Again, a better film may have been just to do with the conversion. It is lightly realized as part of the story, but is the most intriguing. Sobriety is one thing, coming to the higher power so intently as to build a church and start sermonizing is an entire other movie.

The supporting cast is a bit wasted but still heartfelt. Michelle Monaghan is way miscast, she is simply too gentle a screen persona to pull off a former stripper who converts her ex-con husband to testimony. Michael Shannon is his usual intense self, Donnie is a amalgamation of several of Childer’s converts, and seems to embody them all. Shannon owns the screen. One of the more noticeable performances was Souleymane Sy Savane as Childer’s African soldier connection named Deng. His presence is very calming in chaos, but also is diminished from the relative small moments in a huge story to tell.

In Country: Souleymane Sy Savane and Gerald Butler in the Sudan in ‘Machine Gun Preacher’
In Country: Souleymane Sy Savane and Gerard Butler in the Sudan in ‘Machine Gun Preacher’
Photo Credit: Phil Bray for © 2011 MGP Productions

Yes, this is Sam Childers and his journey, dramatized for the structure of the movies. And no, that story doesn’t work in the context of that structure, even guided by the competent director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball). It becomes a bit mind numbing rather than emotional, as if the audience on cue must react in a proper manner to the experience of village raids in the Sudan, victims of those raids and Sam’s intervention to save the children. There is no arc to it, only a parade of circumstances.

This is not to take away from Sam’s story, it is true and he continues his quest. There is a lesson here just in movie story-telling, that in having a multi-continent tale there must be a focus, as not to lose (symbolically) one continent for another. The “Machine Gun Preacher” is a honest crusader, the movie version makes him less of one.

“Machine Gun Preacher” continues its limited release in Chicago on September 30th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Gerard Butler as Sam Childers, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Souleymane Sy Savane and Kathy Baker. Screenplay by Jason Keller, directed by Marc Forster. Rated “R.” Click here for the interview of Gerard Butler and Sam Childers of “Machine Gun Preacher.” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

Manny be down's picture

Machine Gun Preacher

Like this movie for the action,plus the good acters like Michael Shannon who by way is form Chicago.

manny world's picture

Machine Gun Preacher

When I saw this movie and the great actors I just was so happy that is was base on a true story

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