Based on the true story of Sam Childers—an ex-con, druggie, gun nut, and self-described “hillbilly from Pennsylvania” who got right with the Lord and built an orphanage for Sudanese refugees—Machine Gun Preacher is the umpteenth onscreen iteration of a white savior aiding the most desperate in Africa. The kids Childers (Gerard Butler) helps, who have been both forced to commit and witness the most unimaginable atrocities during the country’s civil war, are presented here primarily as scenery—tiny, trembling bodies indistinguishable from one another—or as small sages who offer wise words to the locked-and-loaded pastor when his spirits droop. Marc Forster, who also directed The Kite Runner (2007), another film that packaged children’s wartime suffering, and first-time screenwriter Jason Keller stage Childers’s transformation swiftly: Bellowing at his now-born-again wife (Michelle Monaghan) for quitting her stripping job and shooting up to Lynryd Skynyrd in the opening scenes, he is soaked with baptismal water and laying bricks in East Africa in the next. Butler fulfills the showboating required of him: raging at the disparity between the privileged West and the rest of the world, puffing up when announcing, “Helping you kids is about the only good thing I’ve done in this life.” But he’s a shrinking violet compared with the real Childers, seen in the closing credits gleefully strapping on guns and daring us, because the film never does, to question his mercenary methods.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2011