Conventional wisdom says that sex and prayer are the hardest acts to portray in film because they’re rooted in an intimacy that it’s impossible to fake, or at least to fake well. Matters of love and faith are delicate things, and though we go to films knowing that art can only ever offer an approximation of our own experiences, we still hold out hope that the filmmakers did their best to be as true to life as possible. We don’t expect to see real relationships, but we do want to see ones that make sense to us and jibe with the world we know. We know we aren’t going to see men and women actually go through spiritual or emotional crises, but we want the filmic versions to at least be kin to our struggles. Films that strive to talk about these things only work to the degree that they’re honest about their origins and intentions; if they don’t sell it, we’re not going to buy it.
Machine Gun Preacher is the cheapest story of faith to hit the screen in a long time, and proof that you can make a terrible movie about a good cause. Based on a true story — an amazing phrase, when you think about it — the film follows a reformed biker who wages vigilante war to save orphans in Africa, and it is every bit as bombastic and superficial as that improbable premise would have you believe. It’s not that the film’s heart isn’t in the right place. First-time feature writer Jason Keller and director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, other movies that would make for awkward double-features) are committed to hitting the right notes of awareness and contrition when considering the horrible plight of the men, women, and legions of children affected by the war zones of Uganda and South Sudan. Yet for every broad, ham-handed point they make about suffering and injustice, there are dozens more emotional and narrative threads left to dangle in the wind. Forster’s problems mirror his own brash hero’s, as both men struggle mightily to learn that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The filmmakers seem to assume that the nature of the tale and its blatant pivot into charity-themed infomercial during the closing credits give them license to abandon the basic tenets of cinematic storytelling. The film’s got a slack, almost rote quality, as if everyone involved knew they were making a visual aid designed to act as a supplement to summer camps and public speaking engagements, not a story designed to stand on its own. It pays only lip service to faith and form, muttering empty prayers and hoping we won’t know the difference.
The thing is, in a movie like this, you have to know the difference. Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) starts out as one really bad man: He gets out of prison and almost immediately heads to the bar, where he gets high and starts planning minor robberies with an old buddy named Donnie (Michael Shannon). Sam’s got a wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), and a little girl named Paige (Ryan Campos and later Madeline Carroll), but he hates being around them. Lynn used to be a stripper but has found religion by the time Sam comes home. What led her to this life, how it makes her feel, why she believes; these are character notes not even dreamt of by the film. Rather, she hits Sam with a lecture off the bat, speaking in wooden declarations that don’t sound anything like a wife talking to her husband: “God helped me change while you were away.” We know Sam is bad because he’s constantly angry and because he swears. After a crazy night or two out with Donnie, though, he flips a switch and tells his wife he wants to go to church. On his first trip there, he converts. Next thing you know, he’s stopped swearing and become calm. This is Forster’s cue for us that everything’s OK now, and it’s as hilariously imbalanced as it sounds. Sam doesn’t struggle with doubt or belief, doesn’t analyze his emotions or experiences, or talk with Lynn or the pastor. He just becomes a new character.
The problem — at any rate, the biggest one — is that Forster wants to take Sam from sinner to saved and then springboard into his charitable quests, but it’s too much. He cuts every corner possible until we’re left with nothing more than a re-enacted highlight reel. There are a number of other ways to break the story down, but they all require focusing on a smaller window of time in Sam’s life so we can actually get a chance to feel him grow and change. We’re given the fact of Sam’s change, but not its nature, and as a result it never feels real. After that, the dominoes keep falling: With no real spiritual growth on display, Sam’s faith-based actions feel increasingly slick and cheap to viewers, and the few brief complications Forster entertains have no bearing on our experience because they have no bearing on the people on screen. It’s a movie staffed with cardboard cutouts.
Eventually, Sam hears a sermon about orphans in South Sudan and decides to travel there to build them an orphanage, as well as build here in the U.S. to cater to the world-weary people like himself who might never go to a church otherwise. He’s stepping into a war zone defined by policies and people he doesn’t know, and it’s almost as if Forster’s decision not to explain the battle or set the stage is meant to make the viewer as ignorant as Sam, reacting to the abstract plight of children in danger without learning how they got there. Sam finds himself fighting to house orphans whose families were murdered by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerilla group led by Joseph Kony that aims to violently install a brutal theocracy in the region. He teams up with members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and kills LRA members who oppose them. This is what’s known as an ironic juxtaposition: a man from one country, doing his best to follow God, finds himself going to dangerous lengths to fight someone who also claims to working on behalf of the most high. They both use violence as means to their ends, and they’re not unwilling to kill to reach their goals. In any halfway decent movie, that tension would inform Sam’s emotional and narrative journey. But here, no. Not at all. We barely even learn about the LRA, and we certainly don’t hear much of their religious fanaticism. (I Googled when I got home.) There’s an amazing story in here about a man whose a lot more like his enemy than he cares to admit, but Forster refuses to engage it at every opportunity. He even condones Sam’s actions, or seems to: When a humanitarian aid worker tells Sam that he’s just spreading more violence, Sam tells her to do things her way while he does things his way. Later on, she’s abducted by LRA members, and Sam kills them all in the process of saving her, as if to show her how pointless her medicine and water are without bullets.
At every turn, the film displays a stunning lack of emotional insight and a laughable inability to tell a good story. We don’t have to agree with Sam, but we do need to care about him, but Forster never lets us get that close. Sam’s a walled-off hero, roaming the African plain with his machine gun and spending his off hours reading nothing but the Bible. There’s a head-fake in the direction of marital tension as Sam’s increasingly frequent journeys to Africa put a strain on his relationship with Lynn, but nothing comes of it. They don’t fall apart, or reconcile. They just are, from moment to moment. Butler and Monaghan can be engaging performers in the right context, too, but they have nothing to do here. They’re trapped in a spiritual stasis.
The same can be said for the film as a whole. There’s no breakthrough, no climax, no moment of clarity or change. There is no resolution, not even to the cheaply manipulative subplot about a Sudanese boy looking for his missing brother. (The boy also turns out to be one of those magically wise children who only exist in movies and who appear to offer profound advice to adults at just the right moment.) And it’s because Forster isn’t telling a story here. He’s just riffing on an abstraction. Good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and you can always tell the difference. It’s a simplistic and blind rendering of a complicated world. Machine Gun Preacher is graceless in every sense of the word: blunt, ugly, and unforgiving.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.