This movie had very little box office exposure and after watching it I can see why. That isn't to say that the movie is bad, but it has such disparate elements that I can understand the trouble with marketing it to an audience.
The story is based on the real life endeavors of Sam Childers. Here is played by the woefully under-recognized Gerard Butler. Childers gets out of prison and returns to his trailer park home with his wife Lynn, played by the terrific Michelle Moynahan. Tensions rises as he finds out that she quit her job stripping because she found the Lord. Sam continues his rage-fueled criminal vices: assault, drugs, robbery. But then something happens to cause him to reach rock bottom and turn to his wife and the Lord for help. After his conversion, he struggles to get his life together and after he does he decides to take a mission trip to Uganda and Southern Sudan, where he becomes involved with the plight of the people and builds and orphanage and defends it with soldiers.
One of the nice surprises of the film is that it is not preachy. This is ironic since Sam becomes a preacher at his own church. But director Marc Foster does not let Sam's conversion feel like a prodigal son sermon. Butler deserves a lot of credit for his portrayal here. His criminal Sam is a violent beast. When he first sits in church, he looks like a dog that's been told to heel. But Butler slowly shows how Sam changes his life and fights his demons.
But the other nice surprise from the movie is that it shows that those demons don't magically disappear. Sam takes several trips back and forth from Sudan. He witnesses such unspeakable horrors that wear down his soul. The saddest part is that he lets his righteous anger tap into his violent nature. He fights for his orphans with his AK-47's. And at first we cheer for him. When he comes back home and asks for money to keep these kids alive, he rails against the excess we Americans live with. At first we are on his side and share his anger. But that rage is turned against even the smallest of indulgences his family has. We begin to see that violent man from before begin scratching his way to the surface. Who will win? The man holding the Bible or the gun? This film could have easily been simply about a righteous warrior for the Lord. Instead it meditates on how violence can sometimes be necessary, but that it can still corrupt. Gerard Butler performance believably takes us to each of his highs and lows and is quite haunting.
The biggest problem with the story is the problem that most biopics have. There is a sense that there are several important moments from the real person's life that want to be covered, but they feel jammed together without a strong sense of flow and narrative cohesion. It feels like we go from episode to episode of Sam's life. Also, because the film depicts the ongoing bloodshed in the Sudan, the movie really doesn't have a conclusion. It just kind of stops, with only some character resolution. This may make it more historically accurate, but it makes for a less engaging movie.
As I wrote at the beginning, this is a difficult movie to market. It would seem to tap into the Christian-based “Fireproof/Passion of the Christ” audience, but it is way too dark for that. The violence, while not gratuitous is harrowing and haunting. With so little resources, Sam must make life and death choices regarding children. We witness the unspeakable horrors of the child soldiers and their captors. And while there is no nudity, there is a graphic sex scene in the first few minutes and some necessary shots of Moynahan in her underwear. But because this movie takes a very positive view of the faith, portraying Christians as normal and sometimes noble, it doesn't seem to have a place with mainstream cinema either.
And that is a shame, because even though the movie is flawed, Butler's performance is fantastic and well worth the time to watch. The movie will hopefully also move you to become more engaged with the plight of our brothers and sisters in Uganda and Sudan.
3.5 out of 5 Stars