Toronto 2011 Review: MACHINE GUN PREACHER

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.

rating: 2

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.
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