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Maggie (2015)

Deady Daughter Dance

Want proof that we're living in End Times? Look no further than Maggie, an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie whose main selling point is watching the action icon act. That's right, during Henry Hobson's touching zombie drama, everyone's favorite expendable terminating commando refrains from cracking skulls,* blowing things up, and using his famous catch phrase. We're left with a film that creates altogether different kinds of thrills by toying with its audience's expectations.

I know you're skeptical. Right out of the gate, Maggie has four strikes against it:

  1. A kinder, gentler Schwarzenegger
  2. First-time feature director Hobson, who'd cut his teeth designing title sequences for movies and video games
  3. First-time writer/producer of anything, John Scott 3
  4. Zombies: a sub-genre that, thanks to The Walking Dead, is as played out as vampire flicks were three years ago**

Most apocalypse fiction centers on the aftermath, but Hobson and Scott follow characters in a time of societal transition. The dead-returning-to-life epidemic hasn't yet reached a tipping point, and by focusing on a family's relatable struggle with a terminal disease (albeit a somewhat supernatural one), the filmmakers highlight just how tragic it would be for humanity to literally consume itself. If The Walking Dead is a comic-book, Maggie is a Hallmark card--one of the expensive, frilly, thoughtful ones that makes you appreciate stuff (maybe even cry).

Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a dad whose daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), was attacked by the undead during a clandestine trip to the city after curfew. Black veins slowly spread from the nasty bite mark on her arm, and the doctors give her two weeks (tops) before madness, death, and bloodthirsty reanimation kick in. Wade refuses to hand Maggie over to the authorities for quarantine—opting instead to care for her on the family farm, and leaving the big “What Will You Do When The Time Comes?” question for another day.

Those expecting a retread of zombie-movie conventions will be sorely disappointed. When I refer to Maggie as a drama, I don’t mean it’s a horror movie with some dramatic elements: this is a straight-up contemplative character study that ignites more brains than it splatters. This could easily be a lost chapter from Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, replete with second-hand accounts of quarantine-facility atrocities and a unique take on teen culture, wherein the infected aren’t automatically shunned by their peers.

Breslin provides the movie’s solid, beating heart—even as her character’s slows to a stop. Despite outbursts of understandable petulance, Maggie’s a good kid who has done her best to accept that she’s going to die. She’s neither a mope nor a savior-of-mankind type; she just wants what’s best for her family and to hopefully not die alone in grotesque amounts of pain. Her deterioration is a less sensational take on Jeff Goldblum’s transformation into The Fly; as her eyes go milky and her behavior becomes more erratic, Breslin makes us believe in Maggie’s confusion and desperation to hold onto her personality. In an era where former child stars believe going legit means tarting it up, it’s refreshing to see an actress only bare her soul on camera. This is one hell of a re-introduction.

Speaking of stripping (ahem), in the absence of machismo banter and thugs to throttle, Schwarzenegger explores his dramatic range. He’s played around with comedy in films like Twins and Jingle All the Way, but even those films relied on his physicality and tough-guy persona. Maggie pulls him into the realm of stone-faced introspection and regret, and he performs admirably. Schwarzenegger’s not Benedict Cumberbatch yet (or even Sylvester Stallone), but I really enjoyed watching him experiment with showing-not-telling.***

The movie is not without its problems. Though Scott’s screenplay has a lot going for it, I firmly believe that casting does seventy percent of Maggie’s heavy lifting. The novelty of Schwarzenegger and Breslin will get folks in the door, and likely propel them through Hobson’s grey landscapes and often blotchy, claustrophobic portraiture. The lead performances make up for the filmmakers’ Malick-like lack of forward story momentum, but just barely.

I can’t even call those gripes, though—more like the noble pitfalls of young filmmakers. Give me an earnest, too-tight Schwarzenegger monologue over hokey, zero-hour heroism (or nihilism) any day.

*Technically, there's one cracked skull, but Arnie's character was only partially responsible.

**Also, Maggie takes place almost exclusively on a farm--which is red meat to Walking Dead fans.

***It’s easy to view Schwarzenegger as a septuagenarian caricature of his former self, but oddball choices like Maggie and Sabotage make his later-stage career fascinating to follow—rather than a sad slog.