MACHINE GUN PREACHER. Starring Gerard Butler Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon. Directed by Marc Forster. 129 minites MA 15+ (Strong themes, violence and drug use).
Of course, this title is intended as provocative. It reminds us of the book and film of the 1970s, The Cross and the Switchblade. Both are stories of personal conversion leading to active Church service in an American evangelical Church.
Box-office has not been much. Those interested in the machine gun may lose interest in the religious dimension of the film. Those interested in the preacher may be put off by the rough life of the drug dealing bikie as well as his warrior-like Christianity in fighting (to the death) for the rights of the oppressed.
Message films like this do not draw crowds. A parallel can be made with the 2003 film, Beyond Borders (even with Angelina Jolie as the star) which challenged comfortable first world people, even those who worked for charities, and offered truly grim images of starvation in Ethiopia and brutality in Cambodia. It barely received a theatrical release. (Machine Gun Preacher was screened only at 10.45 am for six days at three Melbourne multiplexes, perhaps a contractual issue before the film is relegated to DVD release.)
The setting here is Uganda and South Sudan (before the latter became a nation in 2011). The hero is Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania tough guy who served a prison sentence, loved guns, could be brutal towards his wife but who had a conversion experience after thinking he and a friend (Michael Shannon) had killed a man. His wife, daughter and mother had found God and led him to church and baptism. When he got his life in order, he was impressed by a preacher visiting from Uganda and decided to go there for five weeks and work on a building project.
He discovered the violence of the Lord’s Revolutionary Army and made rescuing and helping orphans his mission with the help of South Sudanese militia. He was supported, urged not to give up, by his strong-minded wife (Michelle Monaghan), though it took a toll as Childers became completely obsessed by his mission.
But, his conversion was a brittle one and when he discovered children mercilessly killed, he began to doubt God and aggressively took up arms against the soldiers. He had been warned by a British nurse that, although he had won a great reputation in South Sudan, that was how Joseph Kony began before he formed the LRA. Sam Childers is forced to take stock of himself.
Childers is still working in Sudan. The final credits have photos of him and his family as well as video footage. In the film, he is played by tall, strong Gerard Butler. Had there been more lookalike casting, he could have been played by Billy Bob Thornton as short and burley as he really is.
At the end of the credits, Childers asks the confronting question: if a member of our family were to be abducted and Childers promised to get them back, would we question or object to the way he would do it? That is a key question for muscular Christians who defend the rights but do not countenance turning the other cheek.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 1 2011