What?! What are the evil fiends of Hollywood trying to do to me? A new Gerard Butler movie? - yes! With him punching people and shooting them, not just some shite rom-com? - YES!
Playing a Born Again Christian missionary????
You understand my sense of conflict here, I hope.
The movie is an action biopic, covering several years of Childers' life. He starts out emerging from prison. He's a career criminal, a junkie, and a violent piece of trailer-trash with no apparent redeeming features at all. He undergoes a conversion experience, cleans his life up, sets up a successful construction company and pops out to East Africa to do some charity work for a couple of weeks - where he discovers the awful mess going on on the Uganda/South Sudan border, and in particular the plight of children coming under nightly attack from the LRA rebel militia. Horrified, Childers starts an orphange out there. Protecting the children involves taking up arms against their oppressors - something Childers is strikingly good at. A violent man, he just needs the right cause to fight for. Unfortunately the enemy in this instance is way too big for him to handle. He becomes increasingly obsessed and angry at the situation and how little people in the outside world are doing to help, and eventually undergoes a crisis of faith and abandons his wife and child in the USA in order to carry on his humanitarian work. However a small child reminds him of the good side of human nature, he is reconciled with his family, and the movie ends with them carrying on the good work. Which, in real life, Childers is still doing.
The controversial (and interesting) bit about Childers' mission is that it involves leading armed rescue missions into LRA-held territory. With extreme prejudice. Hence his "machine-gun preacher" sobriquet.
Well, frankly I found this fascinating - but frustrating too. The movie covers quite a long period in Childers' life, so is inevitably episodic. The director also seems wedded to the idea of "show not tell," which means that nobody explains anything. So it's really hard to get under the skin of the main character - you don't hear him talk about how he feels, except in the content-free Christian jargon of "fighting the Devil." And the successive scenes can feel really disconnected from one another. For example, the film leaves it terribly ambiguous as to whether Childers falls off the wagon and goes back to shooting up heroin at one point. It doesn't give him space to explain how he feels about the death of his best friend, or how that affects his beliefs, or how that crisis affects his congregation. It doesn't even tell you whether he recovers his faith in God by the end.
Most frustrating of all, there is no background or context given for the actions of the LRA, who are the villains of the piece and by anyone's standards a bunch of utter bastards. They abduct children and turn them into child soldiers and sex slaves. They kill indiscriminately. But why were they founded? What are their aims? Who are they? Criminally, the movie even gives the (inadvertant) impression that the LRA are Muslims, which is just SO wrong - the Lord's Resistance Army originated as a Christian militia of exactly the sort of muscular, charismatic stripe that Childers espouses. (And a secular aid worker points out to Childers just how much in danger he is of looking just like the LRA leader.)
So as a narrative this movie had me tearing my hair out. As a window into a physical and moral battleground, it was gripping and humbling. The themes in Machine Gun Preacher should be a challenge to everyone. To cynical atheists who sneer that all Christians are just complacent hypocrites. To Christians who believe that all that you have to do is have faith, and that God will intervene to fix everything. To anyone who holds that violence is never the answer. To anyone with any humanity at all, as we sit in our peaceful Western countries, and all this goes on, and we do nothing.
Sam Childers website
Sam Childers talks about the movie
P.S: The Catholic News Service described this film as "morally offensive."
P.P.S: Eloise has pointed out that this review makes it sound like I didn't like the movie. On the contrary, I give it 5 stars. I'm just frustrated I couldn't give it the max 6.