September 25, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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MACHINE GUN PREACHER:  Watch It At Home –  A True Story Rings False


MACHINE GUN PREACHER simply isn’t good enough for the story it wants to tell.

And the story, a true one, is remarkable:  Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler in the film) was a drug addict and violent criminal who found Jesus and became a contractor and Pennsylvania country preacher (in a church he built himself), but in a different sense never renounced violence.  Childers was inspired to build an orphanage and church in the brutal area of Northern Sudan and Uganda, and became committed to saving the children in those lands, where war-lords and government heads have murdered, mutilated, raped and enlisted the very young unwillingly in their armies; in that cause, Childers picked up his guns and has served as a very active warrior.


Childers is a complicated figure.  Although he’s done undoubted amounts of good, his wife and daughter (Michelle Monaghan and Madeline Carroll) have had to bear his absences and the psychological scars he bears from what he’s witnessed in Africa.  He’s also a personification of the uneasy relation between religiously-inspired charitable good and the decision to respond to the ugliest kind of violence in a simiilarly deadly way, as well as the place foreigners have in a deep-rooted native conflict.

Jason Keller’s script gets credit for addressing all of this, but it does so in a flat, superficial way.  The hard truth is that tackling difficult subject matter doesn’t allow for more leeway in the quality of the effort; on the contrary, even the smallest inadequacies become glaring in a context as demanding as this.  Far too much of Keller’s dialogue and plot turns are painfully ham-handed and cliched (there’s a painful subplot involving a scarred boy Childers befriends), and the film lurches from one part of Childers’ life to the next, without any real insight or subtlety.  The result is odd, because the portions dealing with Childers’ religious conversion seem to be aimed at fundamentalist audiences, but the rest of the movie is full of R-rated language and violence, and even some sexuality.


The cast is not ideal.  Butler is a good physical match for Childers but gives a very blunt, unenlightening performance, switching from stolidity to screaming intensity without much modulation.  Monaghan has nothing to play but “the wife,” and the Africans with whom Childers comes into contact are one-dimensional.  Only Michael Shannon, in the small role of Childers’ desperate childhood friend, bursts with troubled life; when he shares the screen with the other actors, he unintentionally makes them look bad.

Marc Forster, the film’s director, remains a frustratingly uneven filmmaker.  Forster did very strong work on Monster’s Ball, and seemed surprisingly comfortable with Stranger Than Fiction, but his excursions into genre like Stay and the Bond movie Quantum of Solace have been disastrous.  Machine Gun Preacher most resembles his The Kite Runner, a dogged and worthy but unsatisfying adaptation of the novel.  Forster isn’t able to make the stateside scenes emotionally convincing, and even his African action sequences feel routine.

Disparaging a movie as well-meant and serious as Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t make one feel good; it’s a film that tries to do justice to an extraordinary life, but just doesn’t have the goods.  A noble failure, unfortunately, is a failure nonetheless.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."