“Help me.” When Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) looks up at his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) at this moment, he’s got blood all over him and a very bad reason for it. Specifically, this just-paroled convict and drug addict has stabbed a man who tried to rob him, then left him by the side of the road. Lynn doesn’t know that immediate backstory, but she’s relieved to see Sam in this wretched state. Because she’s got the answer.
In the next scene, Lynn—who found God and gave up her job as a stripper while Sam was in prison—has her husband dressed in a shirt and tie, headed to church, along with their daughter Paige (Ryann Campos) and his mother (Kathy Baker). When the preacher calls for repentant sinners to announce themselves, Sam balks, for a minute, and then he goes—all in.
After his baptism, it’s only a matter of minutes in Machine Gun Preacher, the movie based on this real-life convert’s exploits, before he’s started a successful construction company and built a church in his hometown in rural Pennsylvania, where he discovers another gift by accident (when a scheduled speaker doesn’t show up), a capacity to move people with his preaching. A few scenes later, Sam’s in Sudan on a relief mission, whereupon he decides he must also apply his construction skills—literal and metaphorical—to save the children there.
Suffice it to say that Sam feels called. He also feels, by turns, confused and driven, distraught and irate. But even if this makes him sound like a compelling and even complicated movie character, he is, in Machine Gun Preacher, repeatedly reduced to easier pieces. As Sam fights with his family, rejects his friends, and kills the Sudanese soldiers who regularly leave children orphans and then turn them into conscript killers, he also grapples with his own guilt, over his own victims, from his past life, as well as the African victims he’s unable to rescue now. Sam frets and rages, he turns again and again to violence as a means to grapple with his demons. And the movie—large and unwieldy and strange—makes him a hero, a white gun with big guns. Or, as he puts it, a “hillbilly from Pennsylvania.”
That his heroism is set in Sudan, where he’s repeatedly surrounded by frightened black children and freedom fighters looking for organization, is only the first problem in Machine Gun Preacher. The movie does allow that Sam has some issues at home: though Lynn supports the missionizing and even admires his gun-toting, she also worries that he’s leaving her to look after the congregation at home and also neglecting Paige. For her part, the teenaged Paige (Madeline Carroll) is increasingly resentful that dad’s never home, though she acts out tearfully rather than in the more outrageous ways you might expect from the daughter of a one-time rebel and consistent bully like Sam. Instead, she embodies Sam’s generic domestic stake, and in this. Paige takes after her mother and grandmother, all props to illustrate Sam’s dilemma.
In contrast to Sam’s relationships with girls, his two primary friendships with men are vividly drawn. The obvious reason is, they share violent experiences, sometimes with machine guns. Sam is running with his best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon, haunted, again) when he assaults the man at the start of the film, and together, they do drugs and commit other mayhem, until they don’t. On bringing Donnie into his churchy fold, Sam assigns him to look after his family while he’s away, setting up a melodrama that doesn’t go quite as you expect, but then again, goes exactly where it has to go.
Sam is away more and more, as he finds himself fulfilled (as well as bothered) by his new family/community in Africa. Here he’s famous, as the white guy. He does good work building facilities, and, following a few run-ins with the pitiless local soldiers, he’s inclined to defend the orphans the way he knows best—with brute force. His occasional discussions with his African best friend, Deng (Souléymane Sy Savane), reveal that Sam does have doubts about the bodies he leaves behind (and of course, his doubts are underlined when he kills a child soldier—precisely the sort of victim he thinks he wants to save). But Sam’s Christian faith gives him all the rationale he needs to kill the bad guys, who are mostly characterized here as straight-up monsters.
The movie can’t stop simplifying. It ends with shots of the real Childers, to mixed effects. The story is “true” and sensational, alarming and thrilling. Childers has been promoting Machine Gun Preacher in interviews, suggesting it resembles his own spiritual journey, however loosely. If some details are changed by the film (Childers was in jail, not prison), what’s most disturbing is its celebration of the preacher’s methods as much as his ends. Here’s a might white Christian you can cheer like a Transformer.