The life of Sam Childers is so ridiculous, so overblown, absurd and unbelievable, that knowing that the new film, Machine Gun Preacher, is based on a real person hardly makes the story seem any more feasible. That’s because Childers’ life – a former drug-dealing biker who finds Jesus and sets off to the Sudan to found an orphanage – is so over the top, it seems it could only really be inspired by the movies in the first place. But for the movies, where vain glorious action adventure machismo fuels our conceptions of heroes as gun-toting renagades, where would Childers have gotten the idea to pick up an AK47 and wage his own independent war against the Sudanese rebels at the behest, or so he would say, of God? What this movie should really tell you in the beginning credits is that it is a movie based on a life based on a movie.
We meet Sam (Gerard Butler) as he is released from jail, returning to his life that is portrayed as one long trailer park cliché. While he was in the slammer, his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) found God, which perturbs the irascible and violent Sam. Regardless, he is immediately swept back up in his bad ways: robbing drug dealers, mainlining heroin with his buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon), and returning to his trailer full of booze and rage. The morning after his release, Sam is vomiting into the tiny toilet in his home while his daughter plays on the floor a few feet away.
It takes a murder to set Sam on his path towards finding God, one he randomly commits one night. The guilt overwhelms him, and his wife finally persuades him to embrace Jesus Christ, which he does, like everything else in his life, with reckless abandon. It is not enough to just be a churchgoer, Sam has to found a church, go on a mission, build an orphanage in Sudan, and eventually arm himself to single handedly take on the Sudanese rebels. He is a walking manifestation of a neo-cons wet dream: drunk on Jesus, the exceptional American male takes to the most obscure corners of the world to teach the poor, hopeless third world-ers how to take care of their problems.
Sam is a conflicted, confusing character, who exemplifies the best and worst of a kind American spirit filtered through the iconography of Rambo. On the one hand he is dedicated, unwavering, self-less, and determined to execute his moral vision. On the other hand that moral vision is the product of a very personal and individualist interpretation of the moral order of the world around him. Sam doesn’t blink at setting himself up as judge, jury, and executioner when he finds himself in a moral desert befitting of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. For Sam, he’s just protecting a bunch of orphan kids. But we can see it is all more complicated than that.
As befuddling as Sam proves, it is director Mark Foster’s treatment of his character that is the film’s real riddle. Foster introduces a handful of elements into his story which inhibit the movie from degrading into a complete glorification of the story’s main character. One memorable moment comes when a British aid worker accuses Sam of being just another mercenary. Yet, it is hard to tell if Forster agrees with her or not. Whenever we begin to wonder if Sam is truly on some divine path – our doubts fueled by the eroding of his family life and the ongoing war zone pressures on the orphanage – Foster quickly whisks us into action movie mode, Sam shooting rebels with blood thirsty righteousness. There is even a scene in which the female aid worker is almost killed at a rebel roadblock. No worries, here comes Sam, guns blazing, to show her what kind of character is truly useful in a warzone.
Foster feels afraid of his character, afraid of digging too deeply or asking too many questions. At times he seems honestly concerned with unraveling his characters’ contradictions, while at other moments, the movie feels like nothing more than pandering entertainment. That makes it the kind of movie that will split audiences. And in that, how you react to Machine Gun Preacher will largely say more about you than the movie says about Sam Childers.