Machine Gun Preacher
It hits all the tick boxes that the awards ceremonies love, and the comments about the film and the lead performance have been rather good. So things are looking positive from the start for the film.
Then there's the fact that this is a true story, and aside from the story of the lead character, it's delivering some of the home truths about what has and is happening in Africa to audiences who never hear about these events, and it delivers it in a dramatic and engaging film. It's a row of ticks, surely.
However at one point he turned towards religion and through that found the strength to clean up his life finding a job, turning his family life around, building a business and helping the community.
When his life was getting back on track he decided to build a local church and at the same time, after hearing from a foreign pastor visiting his local church, go to Sudan and help build an orphanage. There he discovered the plights of the children and families destroyed by war and began his own fight to save the children from the horrifying acts of the rebel fighters.
However as Childers became more and more pulled to the plight of these children the more his home life deteriorated, and the more he realised the scale of the problem and how much help he could really give.
Machine Gun Preacher is a powerful film from the opening. The first scenes we see are ones of a village raid in Sudan, showing the plight that the innocent children and families are put through and introducing us to a character that will become pivotal to the life of Sam Childers.
Looking back on these scenes they aren't just a good introduction to the film but they also present the child character really well, and it's a great reflection on the film for it shows that this isn't going to be deliberately screaming to the audience and we aren't simply going to be led to everything in the story.
It's a small point, but when you look back at the points where the character appears in the film you'll see that it's done well, not hidden like the key reveal in a thriller, but merging in with the rest of the story.
The rest of the opening scenes set the tone for what to expect from the tougher side of the story in Sudan, and some of the terrible events that the children there are forced into.
Then we're pulled back to the West, into Childers life as he leaves prison, and the film begins to build, or lower, us into the character. There are good and bad aspects to the story as we are revealed layer by layer how bad Childers character is, and he is pretty bad.
The way we see his character brought down scene by scene is rather well done, and again isn't overly done. By the end of it we're feeling uncomfortable around the character, in fact there's not much to like about him, apart from his connection with his wife and child and the doubt he feels about himself and his motives at his very lowest.
The bad side to this is that I don't think we get a true emotional sense of the character. I felt that we were being raced through the early part of his life and told the story rather than actually being brought into the character, and here I thought we could do with seeing a little more depth.
Equally the way the character turns to religion feels a little quick and easy considering where he's come from, but the performance is delivered with doubt and confusion and brings you with the character without too much difficulty, especially during the scenes of final deliberation which do build a good tension with the audience. With this pace and ease of storytelling it's clear we're trying to get somewhere.
It's when the character begins to have the revelations of what they are to do with their life that we begin to get to the actual story, and it's also where the audience are hit hard with the reality of the story and of the Sudanese children.
There are a few upsetting moments that the film delivers, but they are necessary to even give the audience the smallest of understanding of what has, and is happening to these children, and it's frightening. However the film handles these scenes really well, it knows that they have to be hard hitting to come even close to reality, and through a number of key scenes it does just that without overstepping the line. It never shows too much for too long, but enough for you to realise the shock and the pain that Childers feels when he first sees them.
Some of these scenes certainly caused a reaction from the audience as we watched them, but they really help to give the story a sense of the reality and the powerful punch that they need to get the point home to the audience and for our characters to react to.
Again though, I felt there could have been a little more with the emotional side of our lead character to help us feel his pain a bit more than we did. It happens again when the turmoil with his own family erupts at home and his loyalties are pulled in two very different directions. Yet when this does happen there's a strong feeling of uncertainty and a building tension as we realise what is slipping away from him.
I enjoyed the way that the story builds on the two sides, the one as the tensions build at home and the terrible events lead Childers to begin to fight for the children, not just protect them. Fighting at home for money to take across for them and fighting there to free them from kidnapping and torture from the rebels.
You feel torn between how the story is going to play out and who he should fight for, are his family more important than those children abroad? It's a terrible question and decision and yet I didn't feel the weight of it on our characters, and when the decisions are made they just are. Again I really could have done with some more emotional weight and understanding in these sections.
The story grabs you again when Childers loses his direction and, without something to focus on, returns to his angry, violent and drunken ways, and it's not long before we're at rather unusual point of the story. The character does something rather unexpected and certainly something that pulls away from the likeability of the audience.
Up until now I felt that generally we had been on or around the Hollywood path, albeit with a few surprising deviations but always coming back on course. However come this point in the story I suddenly realised we'd left that path and I wasn't sure where the story would be taking us.
It's an aspect of the film that I really liked for the amount of films that I've seen I find it is very easy to follow plots that don't try too hard to do something different and engage the audience.
This uncertainty in the film and the character lifts the film up above where we thought it might have stayed and delivered, and it provides a stronger edge for the closing act which delivers well and ends on a rather well chosen note.
Performance wise Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon and Souleymane Sy Savane provide strong support, but it's Gerard Butler who steals the show for the film. He's powerful and emotive, and while the script doesn't give him the strong internal and less angry emotional scenes to play off of, it does give him those, and he plays them really well.
He plays Childers very convincingly and with tons of commitment and presence, and there are some of those nomination type scenes for him to deliver and they just show that there should have been more of them as he would have the audience totally won over.
One such moment that also shows strong direction is when we, along with Childers and his soldiers, return to a group of children who have been hiding and waiting. While we see the reaction of Childers we don't focus on it, we turn to the slow reveal and understanding of what has happened and the impact is on the audience.
While this could just be Childers' story and the way it played out this scene tells us something else too, it could be that the real intent of scenes like this is to get the audience's attention, to let them have the emotional impact and realisation of the moment. Even if that isn't the intent, and I think it is, this is how I felt looking back at these scenes and I see now that this is where the focus is better served.
I've read somewhere that this is Butler's best performance to date, and I'd agree with that, although I haven't yet seen Coriolanus. He makes you believe in the character, his anger, and his belief in doing the right thing, and combined with the story you believe in him and his cause, you feel the pain and horror that he feels and the indignation at the inaction of the rich.
There are a couple of interesting aspects on reflection held within the film, and show some of the subtlety of the scripting. One is the attempt of Childers to bring American baseball to the Sudanese children who then turn it into their traditional soccer game and ignore the game he's tried to bring, read into that what you will.
The other is a rather longer and more importantly scripted piece. Childers regains his anger and begins to fight the rebels without mercy and the aid worker tells him that his story is much like the rebel leader's story, that he's fast travelling his path. It's an interesting thought, and when you consider it you wonder how far away from becoming a fundamentalist he is.
Again these show that there's a lot more to the script than just the core tale, there's a great deal of intelligence about the story and the way it is presented to the audience. It also proves that the film would be worth a second viewing.
Gerard Butler gives a great performance as the powerful character of Sam Childers, and the script delivers a powerful and emotionally strong story for him to play. The story is very well crafted, pulling us into the experiences of Childers and letting us witness the events and react to them, never showing us too much, showing us just enough, a sign of equally good direction from Marc Forster.
At times it's a horrifying story and I have to applaud it for the way it tells it and doesn't fall on Hollywood clichés, exposing the factual and more horrifying moments to the audience not for shock value to gain the biggest reaction, but to make us understand and experience, perhaps as Childers did.
This is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the film, delivering a story about how Sudanese children are being treated by rebel forces and are affected by the war without losing a typical audience, and it does it superbly well eliciting a reaction without losing the dramatic story.
While there could have been more time spent on developing the emotional core of characters in the early part of the film and some more weight around the difficult choices they deal with later on in the film, Jason Keller, who wrote the script, should be proud of what he has delivered and it looks like he has a huge career ahead of him.
Machine Gun Preacher is a superb story delivered in a strong film that should be seen. It has a dramatic story that is also a true story, a true story that delivers powerful messages that we all need to hear and act upon.
You can read more about Sam Childers, what he's doing and his charity on the Machine Gun Preacher site, or if you want to help outside of a religious group or Childers methods then you can always look to UNICEF or Save the Children
You can read more about Sam Childers on Wikipedia or on the Machine Gun Preacher site