Thursday, October 13, 2011

Machine Gun Preacher

I don't have much use for the movie sites' ratings any more. IMDB is still the best, I guess, but it's not good. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are both unreliable. But the latter two have an interesting feature where they split the critics' opinions from the masses'. So while the newest Marc Forster (Kite Runner, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction) film looked sort of dubious from the (spoiler-ridden) trailers, and had an awful rating on IMDB (5.7 out of 10), I noticed that on Tomatoes the critics rated it a savage 25% while audiences gave it a 75%.

This warranted a look.

Sure enough, the movie has elements you could predict would turn off the hordes of movie critics, and a share of the audience with similar mindsets.

I think it's the best film of 2011 to date.

This movie is an epic spiritual journey (told entirely without sitars or psychedelic imagery) . It is the true, astounding story of a very bad man named Sam Childers who finds Jesus and becomes—well, a crusader, really. Almost literally. In Uganda and the Sudan. So let me recount the five strikes that would virtually guarantee this movie bad reviews:

  1. A completely sincere representation of evangelical Christianity that converts a very bad man into a very good one. (Not a perfect one, to be sure.) This is only barely tempered by a few scenes of Christian hypocrisy, and the Christians shown in worship are prone to doing things that embarrass sophisticates, like hold their hands up skyward.
  2. Muslims brutally killing defenseless Christians. (This happens a lot in real life but we're not supposed to talk about it.)
  3. The reformed Childers loves him some guns. A lack of guns is a serious problem for the Christian resistance. (This is generally true of people being slaughtered but again, we're not supposed to talk about it.)
  4. Africa is completely and totally screwed up, and there are no white people around to blame.
  5. The priggish English chick who sniffs at Childers efforts probably echoes the feelings of your average sensitive movie critic—and the movie entertains but doesn't exactly endorse her point-of-view.
  6. Lots of other stuff I can't talk about without spoilers.

It's a little hard to talk about the movie in depth without spoilers, and this is a movie, though not rife with twists-and-turns, that pushes the envelope and earns its two-hour-plus length, so I'm going to keep it fairly abstract.

Although the Sudanese civil war is the backdrop for the movie—and I'm sure what Childers himself would most want the spotlight on—the heart-and-soul of the movie is that of a man obsessed. He's found forgiveness in God, but he hungers for greater meaning, which he finds by constantly expanding his sense of responsibility.

As it must in this vale of tears, this brings him to confront an evil that is greater than he is, and in which confrontation brings out many of his old devils. He's found God but can he keep Him in the face of horror after horror? It's really this struggle that powers the movie on a Shakespearean level.

By the way: The horrors? They are truly horrible. Much like Childers' own evils, they're watered down for the movie—thank the Lord (or at least director Forster's sense of restraint). You get a strong enough sense of them without wallowing in them. (True horrors like these remind me why I like the fantasy of the horror genre.)

From what I've heard, everything in the movie's been dialed back a bit because audiences wouldn't believe the truth. And I can see that. Indeed, the common critical response I've heard is that it's too much for one movie.

I disagree. (Actually, less charitably, I think critics hated the movie for the abovementioned points and then made up rationalizations for that.) The movie actually has a laser-like focus on Childers, and that keeps it squarely in "epic" and out of "sprawlng". If you've read this blog at all, you know how I am about movies that express self-indulgence through length, and I never felt that here. There were times when I couldn't believe there was more, but it never felt gratuitous.

Honestly, I can't remember caring so much about a movie character—and it's not because it's a real person, because (if you've read this blog much) you know how I feel about "based on a true story" stuff, and I tend to assume that the movie is only barely based on the facts. (It's gratifying to find out otherwise here. There's a major narrative point that's almost too neat to have actually happened but it wouldn't be the most incredible thing of the film.)

It's also an edge-of-your-seat movie, as Childers keeps taking greater and greater risks, and you can't help this feeling that he's going to end up dead—or worse, with his dreams crushed.

Amazing performance by Gerard Butler that should win him a nom, if not an Oscar, but will probably be ignored. Michelle Monaghan is both appealing and complex in her portrayal of the woman who saves Childers' soul only to risk losing him over and over again. Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, young Madeline Carroll, Soulemayne Sy Savane—you know, it's weird to compare this to Cowboys vs. Aliens but there's a similarity in that just about every character who got screen time established a distinct personality, a real depth of character.

Combine that with heart-wrenching tragedy, stomach-churning brutality, soul-lifting inspiration, and a few (perhaps too few) moments of lightness, and you have yourself a picture worth watching.

This movie might challenge you, though, too. Not in the sort of intellectual, abstract ways that most people prefer to be challenged, mind you. Not in the typical avant-garde fashion of "challenging" norms by laughing at people who believe in them. Rather, it challenges in the real "What are you doing about it?" way that I can't imagine a lot of people are comfortable thinking about.

And it does this without being preachy, either, which is an interesting feat.

The Boy and I were both very favorably impressed.

Still, I can't recommend for everyone. There are lots of people who find expressions of faith offensive or in poor taste, and they won't like this (or parts of it, anyway) one bit. Also, I couldn't really bring The Flower to see it, both for Childers' evil ways in the beginning, and the greater Evil of the Sudanese slaughter.

But if you can dare it, if you have that much of Childers' spirit in you, you should see it.

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