Review: ‘Machine Gun Preacher’

“Machine Gun Preacher fails to achieve greatness, but I think it achieves its goal.”

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Machine Gun Preacher is so blunt that it puts marijuana to shame. It’s a “Message Movie,” damn it, and it never pretends otherwise. By the end of the film, it seems to say, you’ll either care about dying children in Africa or you’re just a festering piece of s**t. I’ve seen subtler hardcore pornography. So why do I like it? I was a little confused myself. Let’s take a closer look.

Message Movies aren’t quintessentially bad movies, although they’re more susceptible to badness than most other genres. Message Movies have to work on one specific level, i.e. conveying the actual message, or they fall apart. They’re inherently frail. It’s understandable that so many filmmakers try to overcome this disability by overselling their point – I’m looking at you, Crash – but that often leads to the actual story getting the short shrift. And then of course if the movie surrounding the message is awful, the actual message gets lost due to audience frustration or boredom. The recent adaptation of Atlas Shrugged was a typical example of this, in which the movie’s point failed to come across – despite constant emphasis – because the cinematic means by which it was delivered were hamfisted and sloppy. Even otherwise good Message Movies (Amistad comes to mind) sometimes fall apart at key moments when they push their message further than the story will allow.

The great Message Movies have a story with an intrinsic message, and their focus is on telling that story. Mrs. Miniver. Hotel Rwanda. Salt of the Earth. To Kill a Mockingbird. The list goes on. Machine Gun Preacher is too outlandish to belong in such lauded company, but even so, it does what great message movies do. It just tells its story. It just so happens in this case that the actual story is blunt as all hell. Machine Gun Preacher fails to achieve greatness, but I think it achieves its goal. It’ll make you care. It’ll also make you laugh out loud when Gerard Butler suddenly whips a bazooka from out of nowhere halfway through the film.


But I’m getting ahead of myself. Machine Gun Preacher stars Gerard Butler as Sam Childers, a real-life ex-con who turned his back on heroin and violent crime after he found Jesus. For the first act of the film, director Marc Forster portrays Childers’ wicked ways with the storytelling equivalent of a sledgehammer. Violent edits and in-your-face dialogue (he’s furious that his wife gave up stripping) make for an uncomfortable viewing experience, but also do their job. Because before too long, after Childers gets his family affairs in order, he ships out to Sudan to help with missionary work, and comes face-to-face with the absolute atrocities that have befallen the nation’s children. Murdered, mutilated, forced to kill their own families… Childers will have none of this. His initial efforts to build an orphanage for the local children are met with hostile resistance, and then finally enough is enough. Out comes the damned bazooka. Which we didn’t even know he had.

I suspect Forster and the rest of his crew expected the sudden bazooka cameo as a kind of catharsis, but it’s such a jarring switcheroo that howls of laughter are a reasonable response. The film recovers from this sublimely ridiculous moment with an extremely melodramatic second half that finds Childers on a path to his own damnation, forced to meet his antagonists on their own deadly terms and falling prey to the violent nature we saw so clearly in the first act, but without any of the selfish satisfaction. He can’t enjoy killing these people, because it doesn’t solve any of his problems. The oppression will continue either way. And down he slips further into darkness. Ironic that such a staunchly Christian film would so neatly embody the concept of Friedrich Nietzsche’s abyss, what with his whole “God is dead” thing.


Gerard carries the dramatic weight on his manly shoulders fairly well, but he’s never been a subtle actor and hasn’t suddenly turned into one now. In that respect, I find him well cast. As the film progresses, and Childers becomes frustrated by his American friends’ selfish refusal to contribute to his life-or-death cause because they’re too wrapped up in their first-world “problems,” Butler and the film itself seem permanently set to “11.” That’s on a scale of 1-5. But Forster’s in-your-face direction makes that work, because the actual horrors that Childers witnesses aren’t kept from us. There are truly disgusting examples of inhumanity to be witnessed in Machine Gun Preacher. It’s not a subtle issue they’re dealing with, and not an easy one to write off. It doesn’t so much condemn the people committing the atrocities in Africa as it outright damns everyone in America who can’t be bothered to even care about those struggles. It oversells this point, sure, but it’s difficult to argue against it.

Machine Gun Preacher is overblown, occasionally ridiculous, and almost embarrassingly well intentioned, and it works. Sure, it lacks the subtlety of Mrs. Miniver, but adding an unexpected bazooka will do that to a movie. I can’t quite reward Machine Gun Preacher’s occasionally laughable lack of grace, but I’ll give it credit for committing to its cause. And to bazookas.