Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Kathy Baker, Michael Shannon, Souleymane Sy Savane
Written by: Jason Keller
Directed by: Marc Forster
MPAA Rating: R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 127
Date: 09/11/2011
IMDB

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Spirit is Killing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After taking time out to massacre the James Bond franchise with the lazy, choppy Quantum of Solace (2008), Marc Forster returns to his usual territory -- Oscar-mongering -- with the awful Machine Gun Preacher.

Clearly, this has some potential, but Forster and screenwriter Jason Keller have fallen into the ages-old trap of "staying true to the material" and therefore sabotaging both the movie's narrative and thematic possibilities. Indeed, the filmmakers don't even appear to notice the bizarre behavior going on here. They're so afraid to offend the real-life subject, who of course appears in a little video interview during the closing credits, that they can't do anything more than slavishly laying it out, brick by brick.

Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is a hard-drinking, biker, tough-guy who gets out of prison only to discover that his "old lady," Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), has found religion. He rejects her foolish new direction and goes out with his bar buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon). Together, they have a life-changing experience as a drug-addled wino tries to stab them and Sam kills him. Sam also turns to religion, and becomes enthralled by the plight of the orphans in Africa.

He begins borrowing everything he can to build an orphanage in Africa, where his hillbilly tough guy tendencies make him a kind of hero. A pretty, British nurse chastises him for putting himself in danger, and his family complains that he cares more for the black orphans than he does for them, but he never wavers. He begins to preach in his own church, getting members to become "soldiers" for the Lord, and picking up arms.

Essentially, this guy is borderline psychotic, turning his drug dependency into supposedly "healthier" avenues, but causing just as much trouble no matter where he goes. In the movie, we're supposed to be outraged when rich bankers don't give him money for his pet project, but -- honestly -- who can blame them?

By the movie's end, Sam has alienated just about everyone around him -- including, incredibly, the black orphans -- but the movie still considers him a hero. It leaves off singing his praises. It's very clear that Forster just simply did not see the contradictions and flaws in his hero, or at least was afraid to face them.

Moreover, casting Gerard Butler, who in my opinion is a boring actor that has yet to appear in a good movie, results in a fairly typical one-note performance. Butler likewise fails to notice the character's bizarre mood swings. He sticks to the "stubborn redneck" theme throughout, no matter what else is going on; there's virtually no change to the character, unless you consider the switch from drug addiction to orphanage addiction a change.

It's odd that the filmmakers would even bother to add naysayers into their script, since they always intended to paint Sam as a saint. Poor Kathy Baker is here as Sam's mother-in-law with absolutely nothing to do except try and fail to point out her son-in-law's foibles.

The thinking behind this movie is that sheer bullheaded-ness can make you a hero; the most obvious obstacles, lurking right at the corners of the movie, are simply ignored, just as Sam would ignore them. The real Sam deserves a more complex and less reverential portrait than this. But this package, and its "true story" tag, will no doubt impress many critics and Oscar voters. Just don't be fooled by their hype.

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