Machine Gun Preacher

True story hampered by muted performance from Gerard Butler

Oct 6, 2011 at 9:23 am
click to enlarge Gerard Butler in 'Machine Gun Preacher'
Gerard Butler in 'Machine Gun Preacher'

The story of Sam Childers is one of a bad man reformed, but it doesn’t exactly adhere to the typical arc. Apparently, Childers was a small-time biker-criminal, a snatch-and-grab guy who was in the game for the cash and the highs (both adrenaline and drug varieties), and he wasn’t afraid of things getting messy. After a stint in jail and a violent encounter that goes sour, Childers finds God, lands on the straight and narrow path and eventually feels called to offer his brand of aid to orphaned children in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda.

In director Marc Forster’s retelling of the Childers narrative, every beat leading up to the journey to Africa arrives right on cue in standard time, but it's obvious that life was not metered in this way. There was chaotic syncopation and a cluttered rhythmic scheme creating a cacophony of discordant sound. On his pilgrimage, he wandered eyes wide open into a bloody civil war and he became a holy warrior in support of children.

As the fighting preacher-man, Gerard Butler has the bulk, the physical mass to deliver the message. But he’s oddly muted, possibly by his desire to do justice to the story when what’s needed here is a bold, outsized play — brashness both in the action and in the moments of personal crisis — because we need to feel the struggle that Childers endures, not simply recognize it intellectually. Yet Machine Gun Preacher succeeds as well as it does because we can see beyond the carefully worn edges of the narrative, to the ragged reality, the ambiguities of a situation that breeds orphans and child soldiers and must be fought by any means necessary. Grade: C+

MACHINE GUN PREACHER opens Oct. 7 at Esquire Theatre.