Reviews

'Machine Gun Preacher' Can't Stop Simplifying

That Sam's 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.


Machine Gun Preacher

Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, Madeline Carroll
Rated: R
Studio: Relativity Media
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-09-23 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-11-18 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"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.

4

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image