Machine Gun Preacher: Dapper Messiah

Machine Gun Preacher
A; Drama, Biopic
Dir: Marc Forster
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Madeline Carroll, Souleymane Sy Savane
Rating: * * 1/2  (out of 5)

The most compelling part of Machine Gun Preacher is probably the end credits, wherein we see the real-life Sam Childers, a violent missionary (an oxymoron if there was one) fighting for human rights in war-ravaged Sudan, via documentary footage. After two hours of a much handsomer Gerard Butler play his cinematic avatar, this is the part of the movie that really hits home with its intimacy and realism.

This, in essence, is the problem with the movie -- a well-intentioned film about an interesting character and an eye-opening world issue that settles for being its own cinematic avatar. Machine Gun Preacher has its heart in the right place, but chooses to gloss over technicalities such as depth of characterisation and lucid storytelling.

This is particularly evident in its extremely disjointed first half, where we see Childers get out of prison. He arrives home, glowering despite having had sex with his wife Lynn (Monaghan), an ex-stripper, on the way. He's angry because she's found God. He's angry there isn't any beer in the fridge. He goes to a bar to meet his old friend Donnie (Shannon), with whom he drinks, smokes and does heroin.  One crazy night, strung out on drugs, he commits armed robbery and nearly kills a homeless man.  As his wife wakes up in the middle of the night to see him cleaning blood off his clothes, he whispers to her, "Help me."

This sudden transition, like others that take place later in the story, is Machine Gun Preacher's biggest misstep. The screenplay flows like a Reader's Digest article - informative, anecdotal and detailed, but lacking heart and a logical character graph. Many events that take place in the movie -- especially involving Sam's sudden transformation into a man of God overnight -- feel incidental and superficial. The 'jump cuts' in the narrative are jarring -- they give you the feeling that there was more to say, but the film denies you that pleasure.

It's the second half of this movie that's more effective. After Sam becomes a docile, hard-working man with a successful construction business, he goes to Africa to rebuild some homes destroyed by Sudan's notorious militant group, the Lord's Resistance Army. Seeing the plight of the children there, he resolves to build an orphanage for them. As time progresses, he finds himself more and more emotionally invested in them, sometimes at the cost of his own family.

While the performances aren't exactly bad, one gets the feeling the casting could've been better. Butler tries his best, but his performance is one-note, mostly just ranging from somewhat happy to slightly angry to very angry. Monaghan is sincere but seems far too pretty play Lynn, as is apparent from the credits where we see the real Lynn. Shannon is reliably superb. 

Machine Gun Preacher is a well-intentioned movie on a worthy subject which would have benefitted from more realistic treatment and a better narrative. Worth a watch, perhaps, but this is no Oscar bait.

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