Machine Gun Preacher (2011)
[This review was originally published at Filmwell.]
Once upon a time in American cinema, a character from the Middle East was likely to be the villain of the story. Upon other times, homosexual characters were portrayed as condemning caricatures. But today, if we meet a character who professes Christian faith, it’s a safe bet to assume he’ll be exposed as a charlatan, a hypocrite, a monster, … or, at best, a pest. Priests and preachers? They’re the worst of all.
“Tolerance!”—that’s the name of today’s mandatory American religion. And there’s only one out-of-context Scripture in its liturgy: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Nevertheless, there’s always an exception. The mob will not be satisfied if they don’t have someone to blame for their own discomfort. And so American storytellers and artists continue to flaunt ignorance and prejudice, happy to serve up examples of the Scapegoat of the Age.
To be fair, caricatures have their inspirations. A few terrorists have been known to come from the Middle East. From time to time, we learn that it’s possible to find villainy in the hearts of gays… or Christians. While the vast majority of priests seem to be gentle, compassionate souls whose hearts are broken at news of a scandal, we cannot deny that the occasional crook dons those humble robes. And what’s this? Do you sense a change in the weather? More and more new movies are hanging a target sign on bankers. (See Tower Heist.)
Nevertheless, crowds will still gather for the opportunity to hate straw-man Christians and throw them to the lions. This year, we’ve had Salvation Boulevard already, and here comes Red State.
Now, I’m not calling for filmmakers to fight anti-Christian prejudice with Christian propaganda. Movies that airbrush Christians into blameless heroes are as bad or worse as their opposite. But I was hopeful that Marc Forster’s new film Machine Gun Preacher might offer a thoughtful alternative to the parade of pathetic Christian straw men being paraded through cineplexes. The trailer and pre-relase hype promised an inspiring film about a man whose life was transformed by an encounter with Christ. And to lure the audience that made The Passion of the Christ a hit, marketers targeted Christian moviegoers.
And God be praised: I’m relieved to report that the movie doesn’t make a mockery of Christians, or anybody else.
But then again, it doesn’t show much evidence of understanding them, or comprehending anything about the Jesus that inspires them.
Forster’s film does better at portraying a preacher than most “Christian movies” do at portraying people who don’t believe in God; at least Forster treats his central character, Sam Childers, as a complicated human being. But the movie, like its Christian hero, is disappointing, and even frustrating, in all kinds of ways.
As it opens, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is released from prison like John Belushi in The Blues Brothers. And, like Belushi, he’s not in any mood to accept any assignments from God. Not yet.
Then, as if striving to convince viewers that this isn’t going to be a squeaky clean “Christian movie,” Forster pours all kinds of “gritty” material into the opening sequences. Childers is flagrantly foul-mouthed, violent, and he has hot sex with Lynn, his ex-stripper wife (Michelle Monaghan), in his car just moments after his release. As the film quickly earns its R-rating, churchgoers who responded to the film’s Christian-specific marketing campaign may stagger toward the exits.
But lo, Lynn has found Jesus!
This news doesn’t please Childers. He commands her to go back to stripping, and then throws himself back into his old thieving, heroin-shooting, wife-abusing ways. As you might expect, he’s throwing himself off a cliff for the rock-bottom belly flop that will trigger the conversion experience promised by the film’s title. Before you know it, Lynn is dragging his grumbling ass to church.
The “Mission from God” comes hard on the heels of his conversion. Swinging to the opposite extreme, Childers never seems to find any kind of balance. He goes from reckless, thoughtless self-destruction to reckless, thoughtless missionary work. Leaving behind his wife, his children, and his bewildered junkie pal (Michael Shannon, making the most of very little), he’s off to help build an orphanage for those poor, vulnerable Africans in the Sudan.
It’s here that Forster starts knocking down opportunities for thoughtful, challenging storytelling. Imagine a remake of The Mission that eliminates the Jeremy Irons character and replaces Robert De Niro with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and you’ll get the idea.
Machine Gun Preacher finds its raison-d’être when shootouts break out between Childers and the gangs of barbarians who close in on an African orphanage. I held on, anticipating an exploration of obvious questions: Should followers of Christ carry heavy artillery? Should missionaries wage war against barbarians while their families suffer from their absence at home?
But I left the theatre wanting. Wanting a lot, actually.
We’re given surprisingly little food for thought when it comes to the question of the complicated tensions between Christian faith and violence. At one point, we see an aid worker who questions Childers’ ethics, but then a villain strikes her, silencing both her attempt at diplomacy and the film’s investigation of ethical questions. For all of their bluster, these filmmakers just don’t have the guts to confront such challenges. They probably don’t want to offend audiences that came to see a handsome white hero protect poor black children… the movie that the poster promised.
To his credit, Forster does a decent job creating a persuasive look at life in the Sudan. And I enjoyed the montage of clips that run through the end credits, which deliver the real Sam Childers, his family, and glimpses of his workplace. (Oh, if only Gerard Butler had grown out his facial hair to resemble that really impressive mustache of the real Childers, this film would have been much more interesting to watch!)
But his treatment of the force that changed Childers from criminal to Christian isn’t very useful. We’re given scenes of a church service and a baptism, but we don’t get into the Scriptures that we see Childers reading, nor is the Jesus that Childers’ worships given much consideration. What does faith really mean in Childers’ life, when it throws him into a panic that suggests he thinks it’s up to him to save the world? We see him staring at an open Bible, but most of the time we see him charging aggressively about and waving a gun, which raises all kinds of questions that the movie shows no interest in addressing.
Childers is clearly moved by the sight of vulnerable, helpless Africans. But does the film care to move us with the reality of their desperate plight? Does it echo the important question “Who is my neighbor?” To an extent, I suppose. But if the filmmakers wanted us to care about Sudan, they might have thought to help us get to know some characters there. Instead, we just see familiar images of Africans being harmed and feeling desperate. The film is so focused on Childers, we don’t learn more than a sound-bite summary about the conflicts in Sudan. And when it comes to the African characters, few moviegoers will remember more than a couple of first names.
It’s a common problem in commercial American films: the screenwriter becomes so interested in the main character that everything becomes about making that character compelling. As a result the rest of the characters don’t seem to have real lives except in how they react to, or are involved with, or trouble the hero. Childers’ family seems to live lives of worrying about him, arguing with him, pleading with him, or beaming at his transformation.
This only enhances and inflates a character that already appears to be fueled by steroids.
Machine Gun Preacher works far better as a movie about Gerard Butler’s testosterone-fueled screen presence than as a movie about a crisis and how we respond to it. It works so hard to convince us of Childers’ brawny masculinity that it becomes unintentionally amusing. As portrayed by Butler, Childers is so busy flexing his “guns” that you half-expect him to march out into a barrage of gunfire and tear the enemy apart with his bare hands. He’s always aggressive, brusque, sweaty, and feverish. Even in his “quieter” moments he’s swinging an axe… or something.
So, while Forster admirably avoids the fashionable caricature of Christian community, his title character cannot be listed with the few respectable big-screen Christian characters. This is not a picture of Christ doing a redemptive work in a man’s head and heart. Rather, it’s a portrait of a man whose developing sense of compassion is repeatedly fractured by impatience and aggression. I see very little comprehension in the man—or rather, in his big-screen avatar—that he has really meditated on the message and the nature of the Jesus he professes.
When he’s shouting his sermons at his hometown church, and the congregants fail to applaud him for his violent outrage, are we supposed to judge them as hard-hearted or fearful? I hope not. Is this film a call for missionaries who carry a Bible in one hand and an AK-47 in the other? God forbid.
And what about Childers’ family? The film seems to want us to forgive the fact that this character has all but forgotten the wife who needs her husband, and the kids who need their father. (Their lives remain in a state of suspension as he goes on fulfilling this mission from God.)
This could have been a fascinating character study of a man pulled to pieces by conflicting forces. The details presented in the film suggest that the material was there, available to an observant storyteller. Does Forster want us to view Childers with increasing concern, worried that he has just reshaped his destructive energy into a new shape? I don’t think the filmmakers know for certain whether they’re giving us a hero’s story or a portrait of a lost and dangerous man.
Oh well, it could have been worse. This could have been a Mel Gibson movie.