“You can’t keep going the way you been going,” Lynn Childers (Michelle Monaghan) says to her husband Sam (Gerard Butler) early on in the new film, “Machine Gun Preacher.” The movie tells the true story of Sam Childers, a former drug-dealer, who turned his life around and began following Christ. Directed by Marc Forster, who previously helmed “The Kite Runner” and “Monster’s Ball,” “Preacher” presents Childers as a complex man whose intentions are noble but whose actions are often controversial.
The story begins in South Sudan in 2003 as a child is faced with a nightmarish dilemma. A group of men from the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA) are threatening him and his brother if the young boy doesn’t kill his own mother. Before the boy can decide, the film flashes to the life of Sam Childers, a troubled man who has just been released from prison in Pennsylvania. His wife picks him up and when they arrive home, she reveals to him that she has quit her job as a stripper and has become a practicing Christian.
She suggests that Sam should follow Christ and after one crazy night when he almost kills a man, Sam decides that she’s right. He accepts God into his life and this decision eventually leads him to go on a mission to the Sudan. When he arrives there, he sees how destructive the LRA is. Composed of soldiers who are willing to kill innocent civilians and recruit young children, the LRA is a destructive force that threatens the lives of people who stand in their way. Despite the threat posed by them, Sam decides to build an orphanage in the Sudan where children can live freely and feel safe.
The story focuses on Sam as he builds the orphanage while also helping build a Church in Pennsylvania. “God don’t always call the good,” Sam says, calling sinners to join his congregation.
With its focus on Sam’s sermons, “Machine Gun Preacher” is a religious movie that never feels overtly preachy. The main character is never treated like a flawless hero. Even after he’s taken a role behind the pulpit and built the orphanage, his flaws are abundantly clear. When he becomes angry late in the story, his ferocious temper is on full display as he pushes his friends and family away from him. His best friend (Michael Shannon) unfortunately receives the brunt of Sam’s rage.
The film succeeds in juxtaposing the lives that children in the Sudan have against the lives that we in the United States are lucky to enjoy. There is a heartbreaking scene late in the story when Sam realizes that a sniper that has been shooting at him is a young boy who would probably rather be playing a game than shooting a firearm.
“Machine Gun Preacher” tells a controversial story because of his depiction of Sam as a religious man who is willing to use violence against the LRA. Sam may be a preacher but he’s willing to pick up a gun to fight for the children of the Sudan. When I recently interviewed Childers in Washington D.C., he stated that he didn’t believe that God condones violence. However, he also said that many people who criticize him would approve of his methods if their child or children were at risk like the children of the Sudan so often are.
Despite the controversy surrounding the film, “Machine Gun Preacher” offers an inspiring message about a former drug dealer and criminal who turns his life around through God. Although people can differ on the controversial choices that he makes, his intentions and his faith are always a clear component of this well-told story.