Maggie’s two biggest selling points are things I wasn’t sure I ever needed to see again in a movie: a post-apocalyptic setting and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I like the idea of both of them, but after repeated exposure over the years, I confess to feeling fatigued at the notion of sitting through either anymore. But what makes this idiosyncratic zombie movie so surprisingly good is how it tweaks both cinematic staples, letting us see them in a different light. It may be the first Schwarzenegger movie to make you cry.
Under perpetually charcoal-grey skies, Maggie opens as taciturn Midwesterner Wade (Schwarzenegger) tracks down his runaway teen daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who has been exposed to a zombie virus laying waste to much of the surrounding area. (One of this film’s strengths is that neither director Henry Hobson nor writer John Scott 3 spend a lot of time explaining the specifics of their zombie apocalypse. Something bad has happened—that’s all we need to know.) Wade brings Maggie back to their farmhouse to reunite with his new wife Caroline (Joely Richardson) and her two young children, but he’s deluded if he thinks he can restore some sense of family tranquility. Maggie is infected, and she’s only going to get worse.
Making his feature debut, Hobson has a background in graphic design, overseeing title and credit sequences on films like Snow White and the Huntsman and The Tree of Life. At first, this seems like an impediment, as he and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin drape the proceedings in fashionable, ready-made doom-and-gloom. (Apparently, in this near future, everything is always smoky, dreary, and overcast.)
But the self-conscious glumness soon takes a backseat to a more urgent concern: What can be done about Maggie? The local authorities are sympathetic to Wade’s plight, but eventually they’ll need to take her to a quarantine center to protect the rest of the population. Maggie’s dirt-smeared atmosphere may be too fussy, but the story’s underlying darkness is unshakeable. Consequently, Maggie isn’t really a horror movie—there’s only one legitimate scare scene—and instead is closer in tone to a disease-of-the-week drama. While it would be cheeky to describe it as the Still Alice of zombie films, there’s actually a strange tonal connection between the otherwise disparate movies. In both, the central sufferer isn’t going to get any better, leaving her loved ones to debate what’s best to do; moreover, not everyone acts heroically, with the focus split between the victim and those closest to her. Like is unlikely predecessor, Maggie thrusts its characters into an impossible situation—one with no good options—and then observes from a sympathetic distance as everyone struggles to cope with their circumstance.
Blessedly, Hobson doesn’t turn his directorial debut into some tortured, obvious metaphor for social ills. Maggie’s worsening condition scares people in the tight-knit community, but outsiders’ panic and revulsion isn’t meant to be a commentary on, say, the demonization of AIDS sufferers. What’s poignantly apparent throughout is that everyone, even the loving Wade, knows that Maggie is a lost cause, and so the movie isn’t judgmental about the neighbors’ fears. After all, they’re right: If the devastated human race is going to rebuild after this zombie plague, they must quarantine those infected. Nobody hates Maggie—in fact, in an affecting scene about midway through, we see how many friends she still has—but, sooner or later, she’s going to have to go.
The one person who can’t accept that, of course, is Wade. Maggie can be viewed as Schwarzenegger’s Cop Land or Joe: a low-budget character drama in which a past-his-prime action star turns down the pyrotechnics to do a little Serious Acting. And while it would be a stretch to say that he shines in the role—the character is too insular and low-key to allow for much revelatory hosannas—he does a fine job hinting at Wade’s deep emotional wounds without getting all blubbery about it. Even at his most emotive, Schwarzenegger is hopelessly granite-like, but he gives Wade an almost Eastwood-ian melancholy, his pained face concealing regrets he can’t quite express.
Maggie subtly explores those regrets. In due time, we learn that Maggie and Wade haven’t had the best of relationships, but they’ve learned to hang together since the death of Wade’s first wife, Maggie’s mom. Without succumbing to mawkishness, Hobson and Scott 3 use the encroaching zombie-ism as a way for the pair to come to terms with the loss they’ve already experienced. It’s why Wade can’t accept that his daughter is doomed: She’s the only link back to his dead wife, making Maggie’s certain death doubly painful for him.
As Wade, Schwarzenegger is all understatement and casual charm, which is more than a small achievement. Throughout his career, he’s made a living seeming superhuman, his impossible physique either intimidating or comically overblown. But here, he’s just an ordinary guy, and he makes that believable—almost touching. (Despite his size, Wade is powerless to do anything for his little girl.) Thanksfully, he’s also surrounded by strong performances. Breslin, who received an Oscar nomination almost 10 years ago for Little Miss Sunshine, is growing into a capable adult actress, too, adept at conveying Maggie’s teenage rebelliousness, but also her panic at what’s happening to her. In some ways, it’s impossible to believe Maggie’s the product of the gargantuan, lumbering Wade—it seems more likely that his offspring would be boulders—but Schwarzenegger’s rigid features work to his advantage, suggesting the uncomfortable tension between plenty of fathers and daughters. (Plus, Richardson, in a small but important supporting role, serves as the voice of reason in a situation where nobody wants to hear reason—even when everyone should.)
Because Maggie is ultimately modest in its aspirations—and because it never quite lands on one easy-to-grasp genre—I suspect it’s going to slip through the cracks, Schwarzenegger’s involvement ultimately proving to ensure that this film remains an odd curiosity and nothing more. But in its own thoughtful, peculiar way, this is an endlessly intriguing and sad little film. I doubt it will inspire Schwarzenegger to give up making Terminator movies. But it’ll stand as proof that he didn’t always have to do those to hold our attention onscreen.
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