Saturday, December 29, 2012

Machine Gun Preacher: Movie Review

Don't let the name fool you: although you might look down the nose at the title of this movie as unsophisticated, this film, part of the official selection of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, is worth watching, and the title carries a meaning given by the movie's most important characters.  "Shotgunner" Sam Childers infests his body with drugs and alcohol, and fumigates a sailor's vitriol from his mouth.  Out of prison and discovering that his wife, Lynn, has abandoned her life as a stripper because she has "found Jesus," Childers' anger grows, as he throws himself headlong into a field of blood with his old biker friends and their ilk at a dingy bar.  After one particular night of violence, ending in what he thinks is murder, Sam pleads with Lynn for help.  Sam gets it, and then gives what he has to rescue orphaned children in war-torn Sudan,b making it his life's calling. 

Machine Gun Preacher  stars Gerard Butler as Childers, Michelle Monaghan as his wife Lynn, and Michael Shannon as Donnie, Childers' forlorn partner in drugs, crime and the dysentery of the seedy life. Scenes open in a small, rusty Pennsylvania town, dunking the viewer into the muck and mire of life in a dirty trailer and all the disposed items a life like Childers' brings.  There are numerous beer bottles scattered throughout his rectangular, tin box of a home, and although Lynn is doing her best to live clean and responsible, Childers demands the life of a lamprey.  His prized possession is his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and second to that is his shotgun, which he uses to continue in his life of drug addiction and violent crime.

This movie is based upon the true story of Sam Childers, whose repentance from a life of anger and poison of all kinds, whether in terms of substance, language, or relationships, leads him to church where he is baptized as a follower of Jesus.  What precipitated this repentance is an intense scene of Childers washing blood off his hands and clothes after murdering (so he thinks) a would-be attacker and vagrant.  Now in church and living a clean, hard-working life in construction, Childers hears a sermon that changes his life. An American missionary to Uganda, tells of the great needs in Africa, and how all people are interconnected as God's children, no matter where they live.  Childers, whose new life has given him much success in building his own construction company, desires to travel to Uganda to help in the one good thing he knows how to do: build things.

While Childers knows hammers and nails, he also knows guns--and he'll use them, soon enough.  In Uganda, he travels to the Sudan with a freedom fighter where he witnesses the atrocities of warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), known for its mutilation, rape and torture of women and children, sex-trafficking, and "child killers," where Kony and his henchmen demand of children that they kill their parents, or be killed themselves.  One night, in Sudan, Childers takes in dozens upon dozens of fleeing children into the hostel where he is sleeping.  They flee because the LRA attacks their villages in the night, burning, raping, murdering, kidnapping, and creating tiny monsters of the innocent.

Childers will have none of it.  Machine Gun Preacher tests the ethical mores of the viewer, as we see him engage in warfare against the LRA while trying to build and orphanage in a war zone--and that against the wishes of his Sudanese and Ugandan friends.  The title of the movie comes from the nickname he earns among the children of Sudan, for Childers continues to fight a very real war against Kony and his LRA.

However, after coming home to America, the culture shock of abundance, prosperity, and apathy toward those who suffer beyond one's ability to comprehend, only fuels his anger and hatred all the more.  One example is when Childers asks for $5,000 from a well-to-do-friend who owns a car dealership.  He hopes to build improvements at the orphanage (such as a playground).  Then, he is invited to his friend's house--a mansion of sorts--where at a party, opulence sets the table among fresh smiles and happy nods of "Oh isn't that nice, that you care for those poor, poor, children."  He receives a meager check for $150, leaving the party in disgust as he walks past brand new sports cars painted cherry red.

The filmaking and writing in Machine Gun Preacher aid the contrast of peaceful life in America and the war zone of the Sudan, and what it's like to be a man caught in the middle.  Butler portrays Childers as a man who goes from anger to anger: in the first case, he's just "angry."  In the second, he's angry at something: evil.  He's not a monolith, however, as the breakthrough scene and catalyst of the film shows Childers holding a dead child in his arms after the child had stepped on a land mine.  Shaking with tears, we can see the determination to fight for something (justice) and against something (evil) sprout to life.

The writing and filmaking do well by the viewer in terms of the seedy, biker bars, where life is shown for its dingy malaise and background music like cheesy 80's hair bands (Y&T's "Dirty Girl"--funny--I had just checked out Y&T on Youtube the night before.  I have no idea why), traditional good ol' boy southern rock (Lynard Skynard's "Saturday Night Special").  One thing that remains static in the character of Childers in this film is his anger, which almost destroys his family and his church.  He's now bankrupt, and sells his business and gives up his home, suffering alienation from his wife and daughter.  All for the orphans.  Does he love the orphans more than his family?  And what of the hatred inside of him?  How can he serve and save the Sudanese children with so much hate fueling his every decision in life? 

This movie is real and raw.  Although there is Christian preaching in the film, one doesn't get the feeling of being "preached to."  Instead, the viewer is an observer, and this is the way it should be.  The movie doesn't come across like a tract in the church scene where Childers repents of his life of crime and drugs.  The ethics of the films also cause one to ponder: is violence ever allowed in order to stop evil?  Yes, say "just war" theorists.  But what about vigilante justice as in Childers' case, if indeed that is what it is?  Donnie, who has relapsed into drug use and is about to die asks, "Sam...can God forgive us for what we've done?"  Sam knows he has blood on his hands.  Again, the writing is good here.  No "apologetic" is given on the part of Sam--only silence.  Another example of excellent contrast is showing the vast Sudanese landscape, so dry and barren, with Lynn, as she speaks with Sam in the supermarket.  In this scene, the grocery aisle is pristine, and empty of people, but full of boxes, food, juice, milk and eggs--enough to feed an entire orphanage.  In the same way, the Sudanese countryside is full of people, not food, violence, not cleanliness, scarcity, not plenty, nor abundance. 

Then there is comparison and contrast between the Machine Gun Preacher and Kony, the warlord.  (We are kept in waiting to see if he'll get caught or killed).  A red-hedded UN Aid Worker warns Childers against using violence to establish peace, "For," she says, "this is how Kony started out."  But Childers' working class "get it done by doing it" attitude is not shaken: he must continue to fight for these children.  At the end of the film, in which Chris Cornell's (Audio Slave, Soundgarden) song "The Keeper" plays, the real Sam Childers asks the viewer this question: "If your child was abducted, and you know I could get him or her back to you, would you care how I did it?" 

Every Christian should watch this film, especially evangelicals who think life is about "enjoying the American Dream."  A note to parents, that the movie has one heck of a sex scene in a car (no nudity, however), a lot of F-bombs, and disturbing images of violence.  Still, the film is suitable for adults, and doesn't glory in those things, but they add the right intensity to show what life is really like in rural PA biker life, in Sudan, and in the heart of every man who struggles to keep his honor while sacrificing his soul.  This is an intense film, and is sure to change the life of the viewer, hopefully with a view to helping the poorest of the poor, the outcast, the widow and the orphan.

If you  have ever been to a third world country and seen the slums, the poverty and the violence against women and children done by evil men, you too know the anger that easily wells up inside of you when your own children ask for petty American trifles like toys, limousines for formal dances, and the like.  Childers struggles against his wife's call to love his family as much as he loves the orphans in the Sudan, and movie viewers want the story to end.  This will only happen when Kony is caught.  

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