Reviewing a film like Machine Gun Preacher becomes a very complicated exercise for me. Religion is a huge hot button issue for me, and much like Mike Edwards had in his now legendary review of The Blind Side, I have an issue about the overly Christian nature of Machine Gun Preacher. What I am about to say here is incredibly politically incorrect. I really don’t want to incite any sort of hatred or religious debate, I’m merely stating my own point of view so that people can see where I’m coming from in this review.
I am a vehemently anti-religious person. I believe it to be a suppression of everything that makes us human; our individuality and ability to think freely and a crutch for people who are afraid that there is no purpose to life other than to live. People who do not want to take responsibility or face the fact that that horrible car crash that took your parents from you was just a random accident. Like extinguishing the flame of a candle, two complicated and involved lives snatched away into the ether. For no God damn reason.
There’s no master plan, how could there be? Senseless violence and pointless death that accomplishes nothing cannot be justified by the existence of a higher power. In fact, using that theory, it makes even less sense. Religion should be a tool of love and unity, but as often is the case with human nature it has been subverted to divide people and corrupt free thinking, to manipulate them into cooperating like sheep, all in “the name of God” when really it’s just a man in a fancy hat, or a man in a white collar telling you the way it is. There’s no message to hate homosexuals in the Bible. There’s nothing about the position women serve in Islam in the Koran. This was invented later by the subversion of the texts for the benefit of manipulative and aspiring men.
Now, here’s the really politically incorrect thing to say … If you look at religion frameworks like Christianity, Judaism and Islam closely, you may be surprised to discover that there really isn’t that much difference between them. They all worship the same deity, just give him a different name and they all believe in the Jesus Christ figure, though across them his origin is slightly different. In Islam he is a messenger, a prophet, but not a direct descendant of God. Then, if you trace it back you’ll see that a lot of the stories that run parallel across these religions are actually cribbed from a number of ancient sources and texts such as Egyptian and Greek mythology. This isn’t Religious Education, so there’s no need to spend thousands of words going into it. The point is, Christianity and Islam are actually not, fundamentally world’s apart as many people would be led to believe. This is why the war in Uganda and the Sudan is particularly despicable. It is a disgraceful and needless war. Two forces killing each other for little reason other than the hate in their leader’s malicious hearts and the manipulation of their own source materials.
Machine Gun Preacher had a chance to shed some interesting light on the conflict, but unfortunately it shies away from this potentially controversial opportunity. Machine Gun Preacher is based on a true story, the life of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) an ex motorcycle gang criminal and man of excess (heroin, alcohol etc). The film begins with Sam’s release from a stint in prison and being picked up by his girlfriend (Michele Monaghan).
He goes home to his trailer in Pennsylvania and immediately immerses himself in the excesses of old. He is also furious that his girlfriend has got a “proper job” and is no longer a stripper at a seedy club he used to frequent. Needless to say she has “Found God”. Sam leaves in a rage and hooks up with his old gang buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon) and the two men proceed to punish their bodies as much as they can.
Strangely enough it’s the first opening twenty minutes where the film feels rather weak. Perhaps surprisingly Gerard Butler just isn’t convincing as the wild card, dangerous man, perhaps because he is too stoic and still of an actor. He isn’t the most expressive and when he attempts to unleash he comes across as a little hammy. Anger without pathos or reason. He looks angry, but you don’t feel the anger, it just feels forced.
For the most part, forced and contrived seems like a pretty apt descriptor for the entire film, with lots of scenes of happy, clappy chappies (to quote Craig Charles) in church singing about how God has saved them and all of this other nonsense. Now, I understand this is based on a true story and much like The Blind Side, there is some Christian content to be had. However, much like The Blind Side, this content is suffocating and intrusive. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs of course, but there’s nothing I can’t stand more than having someone preach and force their beliefs on me. Through a lot of Machine Gun Preacher I felt cornered, with the figurative bible literally being forced down my throat and it left a particularly awful taste in my mouth.
Director Marc Forster, who started his career as such an interesting and intelligent director seems to have really lost his spark over the years. This is a film that I would have expected him to expose the inherent irony in having a man storm into an African country, a part of the world he doesn’t fully understand, and praise the wonders of Christianity to the South (who are predominantly Christian). Childers goes to Africa to build houses for children and villages, but ends up venturing deep into the war zone and seeing the atrocities that occur on a daily basis he becomes obsessed with helping the children, building churches and orphanages and playgrounds and ultimately becoming their saviour.
That’ all well and good, but Forster happens to gloss over the fact that the reason this war is occurring is because of a difference in religion. The North are predominantly Islamic and are butchering people and enslaving children with difference in belief as their excuse. The irony is simple, just how much good can one white man, vengefully gunning down Northern rebels with ferocious anger, possibly help the conflict? If anything, by using Christianity as his backbone he is only giving the enemy further reason to fight. Surely if Childers had expelled his religion and attempted to become Africa’s saviour without religion coming into it, it would be far more powerful? This is a question I was expecting the man behind the powerful Monster’s Ball to delve into, perhaps as a criticism. Instead, probably because Childers was involved with the film, it praises his actions in Africa and only makes him look bad in terms of the effects the obsession has on him momentarily and the neglect of his family for his African mission.
Of course this short stint of dangerous obsession is wrapped up in a pretty little contrived sentimental bow and nixed pretty quickly in favour of just how awesome and inspiring he is. Yes, Sam Childers has accomplished a frankly monumental feat. He has saved the lives of nearly 3000 children. That is incalculable to most of us and certainly should not be forgotten or diminished. However, the way in which he has achieved this cannot help the situation in Sudan because he fights with vengeful ferocity and preaching Christianity, one of the major factors in causing the war. It will just incite further violence and won’t solve the problems. I suppose I was hoping to see a balanced argument rather than idolizing a man and essentially turning him into a saint. Even worse, rather than to look at the issue Forster decides to dilute the conflict further by playing down the North’s reason for fighting, aka their Islamic belief, instead merely relegating them to the territory of bland and cartoonish villainy.
Forster was once a director who delivered measured and interesting pieces of film making that considered both sides of an issue, so a conflict like this would ideally be absolutely perfect for him. Whether it’s due to lack of control over the material or just lack of drive Forster succumbs to this sentimental and tiresome film and ultimately trivializes a very serious issue that the world continues to face in various forms all over. The untimely issue of the frivolity of killing another man over petty differences. Every man, woman and child has the right to believe and be what they want to be, just as we all have the right to live.
Gerard Butler turns in his career best performance here, and while he does get much better as the film progresses he still just isn’t quite strong enough to hold a serious drama on his own. Michael Shannon and Michelle Monaghan provide good support, but at the same time they aren’t really given much to do, simply pushed into very cut and paste roles that you would find in any drama. Expect Gerard Butler to be mentioned around Oscar time because of The Blind Side Effect and also the fact that it’s a film about a world issue that only skims the surface, because if it actually delved into the issue that would be too controversial for The Academy Awards.
What could have been a very insightful and intriguing film about a struggle, using a man and the impact he has made upon it as a focal point and axis, instead becomes a trivial and hypocritical ego boost that squanders any potential it had. Mr Forster I am disappointed.
Machine Gun Preacher begins a U.S. release on September 23rd and hits U.K. cinema’s on November 18th.