Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) just got out of prison and straight away he’s back into doing the same things he’s always done: drugging, boozing, and committing violent acts. This time, however, his wife has found religion and suddenly he finds inner turmoil. When he reaches a crisis, it is only then that he asks for help and he turns his life around.
Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace), Machine Gun Preacher chronicles the true life of Sam Childers, a rehabilitated preacher turned savior for the orphaned children of East Africa. With a span of at least 30 years condensed into a little over 2-hour movie, screenwriter Jason Keller (of the untitled Snow White for 2012) managed to maintain a linear timeline even with the constant trips between the Sudan and Pennsylvania.
The story unravels in dual themes. While in Pennsylvania, Childers struggles to maintain his family life with his wife (Michelle Monaghan), daughter, and childhood friend (Michael Shannon) who is still plagued by drug addiction. He manages to create a business and build a church to support his family and his project of building the orphanage in the Sudan. In the Sudan, however, the more he goes the deeper he becomes involved in the fight for freedom and protection of the children of the region, the children orphaned or who have been tortured and abducted to serve as soldiers. It eventually overtakes him and he becomes estranged from his family.
While the film is a bit choppy in terms of scene flow, and you are never quite sure if there is rhyme and reason to all the chaos, the stabilizing and powerful force in the film is Gerard Butler. His passion and drive as Sam Childers bring out the empathy for the plight of the children and bring home the reality of their struggle. He expertly conveys the inner conflict brought on by having to witness the horrors of a war torn region and then coming home to a civilized society. When events become critical, you can feel his desperation and hopelessness, and then the renewal of faith.
Filmed in Africa, you feel the authenticity in the scenery and the people involved. There is enough gun battle and horrific scenes to portray the anguish without overpowering the story. The drawback to the film, however, is that it never manages to reach that climactic peak that the story builds up to, as if there is a final and ultimate resolution. Therein lies the paradox because in reality, the story continues and there is yet to be finality. The struggles of these children still exist and the political barriers that keep them from receiving help still stand.
Even if the film, as an attempt to show the world of this crisis in East Africa, disappoints by standard comparison, it should be taken almost as a documentary but mostly as an informational source to help these children and spread the word. If that isn’t enough reason, then the raw and genuine performance of Gerard Butler is worth the viewing.