Maggie is one of the last things you’d expect out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Abigail Breslin, who plays the title character? Okay. Joely Richardson, who plays Maggie’s stepmother? Sure. But not Arnie.
Though Maggie‘s a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, it’s more of a character-driven indie drama. The way it’s shot and presented, the whole mood of the film, I could picture someone like Michael Shannon in the Schwazenegger role, or a younger Clint Eastwood.
Schwarzenegger’s presence may be stunt casting, but it’s purposeful. People will pay to see him play against type. His involvement probably helped get the Black List screenplay made; and it’s likely that he helped protect the creative control of first-time director Henry Hobson and first-time screenwriter John Scott 3. Most surprisingly, though, Schwarzenegger shows his ruminative and vulnerable side, and it seems natural rather than forced.
Director: Henry Hobson
Release Date: May 8, 2015 (limited)
Wade (Schwarzenegger) brings his daughter Maggie home from the city after she’s attacked by a zombie. Bite victims slowly turn. Symptoms include necrosis, cataracts, dizzy spells, respiratory problems, and a heightened sense of smell. It’s only a matter of time before Maggie will need to be killed or sent to a quarantine center, and the latter may be a worse fate.
At certain points of Maggie, I was struck by how Schwarzenegger has aged in an interesting way. The texture of his face is like tree bark from certain angles and in certain light. More than that, the expressiveness of his brow and his eyes has increased. Same goes for his mouth, as if the stoic straight line we’re accustomed to from his blockbusters is able to communicate more with age. It’s not just a one-liner dispenser, and his scowls seem layered. Patiently holding a shot on Schwarzenegger has the potential to reveal his inner emotional machinery.
This unexpected depth in Schwarzengger’s performance comes mostly from the film’s quiet moments. In one scene, like something out of a Terrence Malick film or an Andrew Wyeth painting, Wade wanders a field introspectively. His silhouette from behind has a heftier grimness in the dimming light. It’s impossible to forget he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yet maybe the moment works better than it would otherwise because it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to negate his own Arnold-Schwarzenegger-ness for the sake of the story.
Maggie is at its best when it uses zombie-ism to explore the impending loss of a loved one to a terminal illness. In Maggie’s case, it’s about coming to terms with the inevitability of death. Had Schwarzenegger not been cast, the film would have been billed as a showcase for Breslin. She carries at least half of the film. (She’s the title character, after all.) When not succumbing to fits of dread, Maggie tries to live just like a teenager. There’s a normalcy about living with her condition. In a brief sidetrip from the farmhouse, we see Maggie with her friends being carefree before going back to high school in the fall. Infected or not, to them, at least for now, she’s still Maggie.
The film’s handful of missteps have less to do with the performances than the occasional saccharine note in the script. Bits here and there feel a little too much like “father and daughter bonding” beats in a movie. Breslin and Schwarzenegger perform them well, but the actors seem more natural when exchanging small looks and little lines together throughout the film rather than dedicating a full scene to semi-expository bonding. An accretion of affection is almost always preferable to a tenderness dump.
For a film that’s propelled more by its quiet moments, the wind down of Maggie features an overbearing bombast in the sound design and David Wingo’s otherwise low-key score. It undermines some of the control that Hobson maintains for the film, and I wonder how much better a scene or two would play if they were muted. This might be one of the few times that anyone’s called for an even quieter and more delicate finale to a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but in Maggie, the performances are able to do the emotional heavy lifting on their own.