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It would be easy to dismiss Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor. One role has so defined him, it is beyond parody, to which he himself has partook. His name is not in the same conversations of those that include Olivier, Douglas, Brando, De Niro, or Day-Lewis, nor perhaps should it be. But we must not forget how effective his performance as the Terminator is and why it is so fondly remembered. Schwarzenegger has a tremendous physique, which is partially what got him on screen, but he is also charismatic and committed to his craft.
We can joke about his early work as an unstoppable (insert occupation here) hero in the eighties and early nineties, but as the years progressed, there is no denying his developing skills, especially by the time he partnered with Danny Devito. His return to acting after a long absence as governor of California began where everyone expected, back in the roles he was most famous for, jumping on the nostalgia train Sylvester Stallone was riding at full steam. The unstoppable (insert old man in occupation) hero was back and things felt oddly normal again. It was what everyone predicted. A return to form. But then there is Maggie.
The first answer is yes. Schwarzenegger is good here. Actually, he is very good. Bearded, unkempt, sallow, he is unlike anything we’ve seen him in before. Except, just like the Terminator, he is a man of few words. He plays Wade Vogel, a farmer in a time where a virus called Necroambulist has decimated much of the population though the world continues to function, able to treat and quarantine victims but not able to stop it. Wade gets a call from his daughter, Maggie, who is in the city. She tells him not to come for her. She loves him. And then says good bye. She’s been bitten and is in custody receiving treatment, and when Wade comes for her anyway, after two weeks searching for her, he’s told there is nothing they can do. She has eight weeks until the virus overcomes her. As a favor, Maggie is released into his care where the doctor tells him to get her affairs in order and then report her back for quarantine. He must say goodbye.
Wade brings her home to his wife Caroline (Joely Richardson), Maggie’s stepmother. Caroline is a compassionate woman but afraid and she prays to her God for answers that never come. Meanwhile, as many farmers have done, Wade goes to his fields with fire, and then burns his crop, hoping like the others it will stem the contamination. These are the worst of times.
Schwarzenegger is at his best when he lets his craggy face do the talking, when he in is situations, like those in the Terminator series, where it can be most human. For instance, at one point, he must face his neighbor, a fellow farmer named Nathan who has turned and shows up stumbling along on Wade’s property. Wade begs him to speak, to try and show that he is still “in” there, but there is nothing, and when Nathan strikes, Wade is forced to cut him down with an axe. The real problem is that Nathan didn’t come alone. At his side is his four-year-old daughter, a girl Wade has babysat. She is also infected and she stands at Wade’s feet, whimpering in her progressed state, clearly afraid but beyond help. Wade is left with a horrific choice.
A bit later, after Wade brings Maggie for a check-up, the doctor is positive and encouraging for the Wade’s daughter, but once out of the office, he seeks out Wade, who is knowingly in the back of the medical center, dealing with his emotions. The doctor, a family friend, explains that Wade really has only three options. As he talks, Wade listens and we see the anguish in his face as each are offered. When he walks away, we are left believing he has already made a choice.
Schwarzenegger isn’t big in these moments. That’s the point. The larger than life persona that is Arnold Schwarzenegger is purposefully reduced. Camera angles, postures, situations –they all make the man small as he deals with big issues. It’s remarkably effective and incredibly provocative, given who we are watching. Directed by Henry Hobson, Maggie is all around a provocative film that takes the current fascination with zombies and tries to give it the weight a story like this truly needs. Actually “zombie movie” is really the wrong term. While the infected are the catalyst, it is the commitment to a promise to protect his daughter that is the real story. Yes, it borrows heavily from the zombie genre, but the movie takes those tropes and delivers some extraordinary moments, ones that are powerfully emotional and sometimes physically draining. This owes a lot to the actors. Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is especially haunting as she witnesses her own transformation. She brings a very frightful ache to the role, as unlike other films in the genre where bitten or infected victims become monsters almost instantly, this is a long, slow, terrible metamorphosis that, quite naturally terrifies her. She works to ebb it as much as she can, from distracting herself on a swingset, painting her nails, and literally hacking off her finger when it bleeds a thick black ooze, all the while completely cognizant of her traumatizing situation. But it’s more than that. The zombies, or infected, are exactly what zombies look like when one thinks of a zombie. They scuffle about, are gray and ashen, black-vein streaked and don’t speak. But they don’t present the same sort of horror or even fear associated with what they are. At least in the traditional sense. Necroambulist is a condition. People see the doctor for it and it is treated much the same way as AIDS or Ebola was when each come to prominence. Some people have it, they are separated, exist, and then are eventually given a “cocktail” that ends their suffering, though it is terribly painful. Meanwhile others cope and scientists research.
Hobson is a confident director and takes us to places in this film that are typically reserved more for medical dramas than zombie films, and that is what makes it so special. Some may feel cheated by the lack of actual zombie attacks and jump scares, but this is the wrong film for that. It is social commentary with a pop-culture hook, meant to incite questions about morality, responsibility and compassion in the face of a dreadful disease. Its only flaw is its ending, where we are robbed of the pay-off left promised throughout that utterly strips Schwarzenegger of what could have perhaps been his greatest acting achievement. The film makers were clearly ready to go there, as were the actors, but for whatever reasons, tragically misstepped in the final moments. It’s almost unforgivable. But there is so much reward for those invested throughout, it would be a shame to have this flaw diminish the work done by Breslin and Schwarzenegger. Maggie is a rich and emotional experience that may surprise many.
After all this talk of Schwarzenegger, one of the best moments in film doesn’t actually involve him. As the film is about Maggie, this moment stems from her harrowing journey. Desperate to make her last few weeks as “normal” as can be, her family does their best to give her a fulfilling experience and yet keep things sensible. One day, she is invited by her school friends to join them on a campfire where another boy, Trent is similarly infected. This is how life happens now. She attends and there is talk of what is and what should be done with those that are fully turned, and Trent, appalled by one boy’s discriminatory attitude toward the infected confesses that he is scared and that he fears the quarantine areas, so that his dream is to put a gun to his head. Maggie and Trent part from the group and a little later on find themselves alone, reflecting on their condition, ending with a kiss.
Days later, Maggie goes to visit Trent and when she arrives, finds that he has locked himself in his room with his father standing in the hall clutching a shotgun. Trent knows it’s time to report to quarantine, but refuses and wishes to only stay in his room. Trent’s father is panicked and when Maggie arrives, steps gently aside as she tells her friend she is here for him. He is afraid. He knows it’s time but he can’t face the horror of what is the real truth of the quarantine: a savage place where all infected are put together, feeding off each other. A police “extraction” unit arrives in riot gear and surrounds the house as Maggie weeps through the door. They gently ease her aside and instruct the scared boy inside to step away from the door as they break in. Calling to his father, he is dragged away.
The moment reveals much about the virus and what it means to the people of this small farming town. These are good people. They didn’t choose this to happen. When the police arrive, there is an expectation of violence and fear and hatred, but none of that is present. The cops know this family and everyone else in their community. Trent is a person afflicted with a horror they only see from the outside but can’t experience from his perspective. They are not here out of bigotry or contempt, but to ensure that others will be safe. They understand that Trent will never open the door on his own. That would mean defeat, and no person wants to go without a fight. They are not going to beat him down, but to make sure that last bit of fight for humanity he has, is controlled. They treat Trent with dignity. So too, do they Maggie, who is witness to her own future, as she is surely imagining. Huddled against her friend’s door, she remains fixed as the police flood the hall. But they know this girl, her father, and her family. They know she will be next. But that does not mean they can’t be humane. The sheriff in charge asks her to move and then kindly, knowingly, rests a hand on her shoulder. It says much about the film’s message and the courage these people must keep.
Maggie’s fate is tragic. She represents all those that are infected and puts a face on the horror of the outbreak. Wade is the rest of humanity, trying to find a balance in the world where none can be had. He attempts to redefine normality, as all of civilization does in the face of unendurable suffering. When the sheriffs do come for Maggie, they have to face Wade first and there are emotions that overcome both sides. This is the real draw of this story as we feel the pull of everyone involved. Maggie especially knows this and begs her father to make her pain stop when the time comes. He must. It’s a conceit the entire film hinges upon.
Maggie is unique and wondrous and deeply affecting, and like much in life that has these same qualities, it comes with some letdowns as well. You may start to watch because you’re curious if Schwarzenegger can pull it off, which he does, but you will stay because the story is that good. A well-made, haunting little film that deserves a viewing.
Director(s): Henry Hobson
Actor(s): Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin