In Home Viewings: "Machine Gun Preacher"

After a well-deserved stint in prison, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) returns home to discover that his wife, Lynn (Michelle Moynahan), has found religion and hopes to see him change his wayward ways. Sam vehemently rejects this course of action and immediately returns to his lifestyle: drugs, alcohol, and pulling robberies with his pal, Donnie (Michael Shannon). His hardened persona takes a hit, however, when he nearly kills a homeless man, forcing him to examine the mess he has made of his life. Sam begins going to church with his family and before long he has turned his life around. Several years down the road, Sam meets a missionary from Africa who turns him on to the plight of orphans in Rwanda. After a visit that tugs at his heartstrings, Sam becomes obsessed with helping these kids and puts everything he has into building a safe place for those who are at the very center of a brutal civil war. But when his peaceful ways do little to deter the murderous ways of those who run the country, Sam reverts back to violence of his past, this time in defense of the orphans he would protect, who come to call him the Machine Gun Preacher.

Oh, how I wanted to like this movie. I was intrigued from the moment I saw the first trailer and while the reviews from last year weren’t good (at all), I still felt like there was a decent enough chance that I could at least enjoy this movie for what it is. If nothing else the concept, based on a true story, holds some value for me and I must admit, I’m a fan of vigilantism, as deranged as that may sound. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing positive within Machine Gun Preacher that I could latch onto. In fact, it’s almost like the makers of this film were going out of the way to alienate me and I would guess just about anyone else who happened to sit down for a viewing.

First and foremost, director Marc Forster displays absolutely no aptitude for subtlety; think of a method in which a movie can attempt to manipulate one’s emotions and Machine Gun Preacher probably employs that method. Watching this film is like being beaten over the head with a hammer; a soft, velvety hammer to be sure but a hammer nonetheless. I’ve never been one to get up in arms about a movie trying to invoke emotions but man, a little more respect for the viewer’s ability to follow along and connect would have been appreciated. Second, the characters are all horribly one-dimensional and robotic. At times Sam breaks out of his cage but these moments are few and far between and most of the time all of the main characters remain rigidly bound to the overly-simplistic, paper-thin guidelines set out in what I’m assuming is a miserable script. Third, the performances within MGP are really, really bad. I’m not sure whether the acting is hamstrung by the wretched characters or if the characters never get a chance to expand because of the bad acting, but regardless, these are not portrayals that this cast will wish to bring up in the future. Even Michael Shannon, one of the greatest, most underrated actors of his generation, seems completely lost in a role that perhaps he regretted taking. It’s been quite a run for Shannon of late so I won’t get up in arms about one lesser performance, especially considering how much better he is than the lead.

Let it be known that I do like Gerard Butler. I hate (repeat: HATE) most of the movies he has made since 2007’s 300 but I’ve been willing to cut him some slack based on the fact that it took him many years to catch his big break and I can’t blame him for taking a few paycheck roles afterwards. That said, his performance in MGP makes it very hard to defend him. Much like Forster’s work behind the camera (and perhaps because of it), Butler seems to be dead set on FORCING the viewer to relate rather than letting the audience make that choice on their own. To describe his acting as “award pandering” might be a little strong but it’s not far from the truth. Moreover (and much more importantly in my book), his accent is legitimately among the worst I have ever heard. In the beginning of the film, I couldn’t decide if he was supposed to be American (he is) or if the real-life Sam Childers was actually Scottish (he isn’t). The accent jumps back and forth, though always tinted with a twinge of a foreign accent. I could probably forgive that. But things got much, much worse in the second act when Butler flipped a switch and went into a BRUTAL southern accent, complete with the dialogue you might expect to get from an episode of Hee-Haw. Childers is from Pennsylvania, not the deep south, and even if Butler had mastered the accent, the dialogue would have still proven unbearable. I’m of the opinion that if you can’t do the accent, then you just don’t do it. Tom Cruise took flack for his role in Valkyrie in which he made no attempt at a German accent but I would much prefer that to trying an accent and butchering it. Later on Butler seems to have gotten this memo as he reverts back to the “is he American or not” accent on display earlier on.

If all of that isn’t enough to keep you from seeing MGP, let me also tell you that the movie decisively lacks an audience. Often it feels like an overtly Christian film, brought to you by the studio who gave us Facing the Giants and Fireproof (films which I have previously expressed a distaste for despite the shared beliefs I have with the filmmakers). But then it goes out of its way to separate itself from those films by allowing Butler to fly off the handle with a flurry of words that insure MGP will earn its R-rating. I can’t imagine many of those I go to church with embracing this film because of the unnecessarily graphic handling of the subject matter; similarly, I would expect non-churchgoers to bail out based on the cheesy, Kirk Cameron-y way in which the film is laid out. At the end of the day, this is just simply a bad movie that does nothing with its worthwhile central story and actually gets worse the more I think about it.