In spite of the focus on salvation and the challenges of a godly life, Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t read as a Christian message film. And in spite of its overall plot—violent biker drug addict finds God, goes to the Sudan, and starts effectively fighting a war that the locals seem to be losing—it isn’t a typical “black conflict channeled through white witness” story either. In both cases, the film dodges the obvious trap by focusing so fiercely on controversial biker-turned-preacher-turned-militia-fighter Sam Childers that it’s clear this is his story, not the Sudan’s, or Christianity’s. Preacher partially adapts Childers’ autobiography Another Man’s War, but visualizes him from the outside instead of through his own lens. In the process, it expresses something neither religious-uplift movies nor Great White Hope stories tend to acknowledge: the consuming frustration and loneliness that can come alongside a moral call to action.
300/The Ugly Truth muscleman/rom-com lead Gerard Butler gets a rare opportunity for real depth as Childers, an angry, aimless product of poverty who begins the movie by emerging from prison, banging his wife (Michelle Monaghan) in their car, then visiting a drug buddy (Michael Shannon) for a celebratory score. But an intense confrontation with a knife-wielding maniac, plus Monaghan’s newfound faith, leads Childers to convert, battle his demons, and remake himself as a successful business owner. He initially visits Africa to build homes, but soon feels God wants him to construct an orphanage for the victims of Joseph Kony’s marauding Lord’s Resistance Army. And as he sees more of the LRA’s work, he feels a possibly less godly pull to pick up a gun and do something about it.
Machine Gun Preacher periodically strains credulity with its over-the-top approach, which packs a lot of incident into a small space, and heightens its emotions accordingly. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) turns Childers into a cartoony Rambo who dispatches nameless baddies with perfect dramatic timing, and heroically saves the bleeding-heart aid workers who dared question his methods. Meanwhile, the Sudan’s aridness and desperation are repeatedly contrasted with America’s glittering luxuries, which are awkwardly crammed into Childers’ otherwise hardscrabble Pennsylvania town only when it’s time to prove a point. This is in many ways a self-serving, hyperbolic story that mythologizes Childers and his life without addressing the inherent contradictions in murdering people for God. (Particularly murdering fanatics who themselves claim to be murdering people for God.)
But the anguish of the situation is compelling, particularly as Childers pursues his convictions with an intensity that becomes frightening and bitter, both in the pulpit and in the field. The rage that haunted him as a younger man finds a worthier focus, but is no more constructive than it ever was. Butler acquits himself well in a smoldering performance that embraces show-don’t-tell, and the obvious fragility of the world he’s trying to build and protect is heartbreaking. Machine Gun Preacher is stirring when it presents Childers as a hero, but it does its most impressive work when it addresses him as a flawed, struggling, but still determined man.