By Kathleen M. O’Donnell, City College of New York
It’s rare that a cinematic film opens with a scene of an African village being burned to the ground. It’s even more curious that the next scene shows heartthrob Gerard Butler being released from prison. These are just the start of the confusing elements in Machine Gun Preacher, the latest film by director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland). Butler plays junkie Sam Childers, who finds God after a drug-induced fit of rage. Childers turns his life around by opening a construction company and church. Still searching for a true purpose, he journeys to Northern Uganda and Sudan to aid the child victims of the guerilla rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Armies.
The most unlikely part of this film? It’s based on a true story. That’s right. Hell-raiser-turned-preacher Childers is a real guy. That makes Butler’s casting even stranger. The only way we could be completely convinced is if we never saw Gerard Butler ever before. His Scottish accent shows up occasionally, throwing a wrench in the “hillbilly from Pennsylvania” character. His saving graces are dramatic scenes where soft music accompanies him carrying injured children to safety. Despite the misstep with Butler, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Sam Childers. He’s that unusual.
With the help of peacekeeping soldier, Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), Childers builds an orphanage complex where the small refugees can eat and sleep unharmed. His family in Pennsylvania, the opposing forces and the officials wonder why on Earth would he risk his life to help people halfway around the world. For Childers, helping the children becomes his duty.
The true beauty of this film lies in the supporting cast. Savane is charming, authoritative and offers a welcome contrast to Butler’s hard edges. Michelle Monaghan, recently emerging as an action star herself (Source Code, Eagle Eye) plays Lynn Childers, Sam’s supportive wife. Her faith guides her through the series of tough times and Monaghan shines. The always-moving Michael Shannon fulfills the role of Sam’s loyal best friend, who, despite dances with hard drugs and alcohol, is there when the Childers family needs him most.
A few scenes in the film are symbolic of imperialist imposition in Africa. Though sparse, they are felt deeply. One scene places Sam in a hut he built in Sudan, talking on a cell phone to Lynn who happens to be in the middle of an American grocery store completely devoid of people, but so full of food. This is not something Sam nor his Sudanese friends take for granted. He returns to Pennsylvania demanding his congregation to rip through the layers of sin in their lives.
Despite being heavily violent, as the title would suggest, Machine Gun Preacher is also endearing. The African landscape is expertly captured and the children’s nightly singing resonates long after the film is over.
Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a columnist for The New Student Union. Follow her @kayteeohdee