Peddling humanitarian outrage and stomach-churning violence with roughly equal fervor, Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher” is a blunt, morally confused portrait of Sam Childers, the Philadelphia ex-con who found Jesus and has since devoted his life to rescuing children in war-torn Sudan. While the result is yet another story of African suffering told from a white do-gooder’s perspective, this particular do-gooder is intrinsically fascinating enough to warrant attention, albeit more nuanced attention than he receives here. Inspirational trappings and decent action elements aside, this Relativity release leaves a medicinal aftertaste that will likely serve as a commercial deterrent, though some Christian audiences might respond.
Just released from prison, Philly native Sam (Gerard Butler) returns home to his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), and their young daughter, Paige (Ryann Campos), and quickly sinks back into a life of substance abuse, compulsive violence and armed robbery along with his old bar buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon). But Lynn, who became a Christian during Sam’s incarceration, urges her husband to go to church with her; after a near-fatal skirmish, Sam agrees and is forever changed by the experience.
Adopting a rudimentary approach to complex developments, Jason Keller’s screenplay is content to observe Sam’s Damascus moment from the outside, displaying minimal interest in the mystery of his sudden faith. Within months, Sam has gone from hardened thug to God-fearing missionary; having started his own construction business, he decides to put his skills to meaningful use on a relief trip to Uganda.
But when Sam makes a dangerous detour into neighboring Sudan, escorted by Sudanese People’s Liberation Army soldier Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane, “Goodbye Solo”), he witnesses firsthand the atrocities perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a vicious renegade militia that turns children into soldiers, often by forcing them to kill their own parents. Moved by the plight of countless young refugees, Sam provides them with temporary shelter and eventually decides to build a local orphanage. Soon, what was intended to be a short-term mission has become a life-consuming project, leaving his wife and daughter (now played by Madeline Carroll) feeling abandoned, and making him a sworn enemy of the LRA.
The generally simplistic beats of the storytelling can’t entirely smooth over the fascinating edges and contradictions that make Sam so compelling a figure, one who prizes actions over words and becomes increasingly fed up with the life of Western privilege, where the cost of every petty extravagance could put a serious dent in famine or disease worldwide. Sam’s increasingly fanatical devotion to his cause even outweighs his allegiance to God, and in the interests of protecting his flock (and distracting moviegoers with some well-choreographed shootouts), he doesn’t hesitate to take up firearms; not for nothing does he earn the nickname “Machine Gun Preacher.”
Butler infuses the role with the red-blooded energy and robust physical presence it requires, and his performance grasps the essential insight that Sam, whether ne’er-do-well or born-again believer, is a consummate man of action whose past lust for violence and present desire for positive change spring from the same impulse. Still, neither the script nor Butler’s tendency to bellow leaves much room for subtlety; for that, there’s Shannon, who delivers a quietly anguished turn as a forgotten sidekick whose own hard-won redemption hasn’t been accompanied by nearly as much fanfare. As Sam’s supportive wife, Monaghan is bracingly level-headed and sympathetic.
Partly shot in South Africa, the film is technically well mounted, and Forster isn’t inclined to prettify the dry, brushy landscapes or make them look vibrantly exotic in the manner of some Africa-set studio productions of recent years. The film is rather less sensitive, however, in its depiction of the children, who are frequently presented in the emotional equivalent of money shots; the camera has an irritating habit of discovering them cowering together in the back of a truck or lying dead in an artfully staged pile by the road, almost always accompanied by Asche & Spencer’s sobering score.
By the time an orphan boy steps forward to earnestly articulate an uplifting message for Sam’s benefit and ours, it’s clear Forster is venturing into territory covered with far more artistry and political awareness, and fewer commercial compromises, in films like Claire Denis’ “White Material” and particularly Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s “Johnny Mad Dog,” with its insight into the psychology of child soldiers. “Machine Gun Preacher” views these kids as many things — statistics, mouthpieces, lucky beneficiaries of Western compassion — but never do they become people in their own right.