Like every child of the 90’s, I grew up on a steady diet of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. I think I saw Terminator 2–edited for TV of course–before I could even walk. I wasn’t old enough to think about what a strange movie star he was, with his absurdly long name and thick accent. I just accepted him. Every kid from my generation loved his movies, with their insane stunts and gloriously cheesy one-liners. He was the action hero we needed. Which is why I think most of us have found his post-Governator movie career to be sadly underwhelming. The Last Stand was decent but did little more than place an older version of the guy we grew up with into the same action movie he’d already made dozens of times. The Expendables movies are unwatchable, so full of ‘wink-wink’ moments and nods to other movies they’re one step away from being full on spoofs. I didn’t bother seeing Escape Plan, his prison movie with Stallone, because it looked so insipid. And Sabotage, while attempting something different, was far too convoluted for me to care about. The main problem is that all of these roles allowed Schwarzenegger to coast by on his reputation and history. They offered nothing new for him to do. That changes with Maggie, a bleak, moving, zombie drama that contains his best performance in years, perhaps ever.
Subtlety was not something I ever expected to see in Schwarzenegger but that’s exactly what he brings to the role of Wade Vogel, a farmer struggling to get by as a zombie outbreak threatens the entire world. This is a slower outbreak that we’re used to. The world still functions a bit: radio broadcasts continue to transmit information, the police are still on the job, infection takes weeks instead of days or hours to turn people into the walking dead, doctors are working on a ‘cocktail’ to slow infection, and the infected are placed in quarantine before they can hurt anybody. Doom is definitely on the horizon but civilization is determined to hold it off for as long as possible. As the film begins, Schwarzenegger picks up his daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin) at a hospital after discovering she’s been bitten. He’s told that she should go right into quarantine but a doctor friend of his bends the rules and allows her to be taken home instead. The rest of the film focuses on Maggie coming to terms with her imminent demise as Schwarzenegger tries to figure out what to do with her when the inevitable occurs.
It’s a simple, stripped down premise for a zombie movie, one that benefits from focusing a single family instead of the whole world. It’s also bleaker and sadder than most zombie stories, which is no easy feat considering how dark The Walking Dead can be. The slow infection timeframe makes it harder for people to let go of their loved ones. There’s a particularly affecting scene early on where Schwarzenegger encounters a neighbor friend and his young daughter, both of whom have turned. He begs the man to say something, anything, to show that he is still human but his friend just shambles forward, arms outstretched and hungry for flesh. When Schwarzenegger kills them both, there’s no moment of triumph, no sense of victory, only a profound feeling of loss.
The grief he carries over their deaths extends to his daughter. He knows he may have to kill her but is determined to make the most out of the time he has left with her. The scenes between Breslin and Schwarzenegger are moving and well acted by both. Schwarzenegger displays a tenderness here I did not know he was capable of. We feel his love for his daughter, the anguish over the choice he has to make, and the weight he carries around because of that. Granted, this is not a radically different performance for Schwarzenegger. He still has the same accent and still moves the same way, but he’s more nuanced than he’s ever been. There’s nothing showy about what he does here. It is simply an honest performance and more appropriate for his age than anything else he’s done in recent years. One also gets the sense that his work here is a bit of a commentary on his whole career. You hear that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be in a zombie movie and you assume it’s going to feature him blowing people’s heads off while saying things like, “you’re dead weight.” But times have changed; he’s an older man now, and he’s got more important things to care about than one-liners. I hope Terminator: Genysis (that fucking title) flops at the box office and he sticks to roles like this one. It feels like the natural progression of his career.
What’s also impressive about his work in Maggie is that he chooses to play a supporting character, not the lead. You expect a movie star like him to always want to be in the forefront but he steps aside and allows the main focus of the film to be on Abigail Breslin. The movie begins and ends with her and she proves, once again, that she is a terrific young actor who deserves far more work than she gets. There’s nothing maudlin in her performance, just a gradual acceptance of her fate. A subplot involving her relationship with an infected boy from school is sweet and sincere, as is the relationship she has with her healthy best friend. Breslin also manages to make the transition from human being to mindless creature involving. Usually in this sort of material, that shift happens abruptly but here it’s slower and Breslin does an impressive job conveying what it must be like to lose pieces of yourself (literally and figuratively). The film works best when it reflects on the world gone by. Little things like sitting on the swing set, or chatting with her friends around a campfire, or sitting down for dinner with her parents suddenly mean everything to Maggie because she knows she will not have them for much longer.
A bone of contention that many people will have with the film is the ending. Taken one way, it can seem like a bit of a cop-out. First time director Henry Hobson rushes the final moment and relies on forced sentimentality to bring it home. This is disappointing considering how well earned the rest of the movie’s poignant moments are. But I think I understand what he was going for. What happens to Maggie should be her choice and no one else’s. I get that and appreciate it as a message but the conclusion he presents us with is too rushed and lacks a real catharsis. I think most people’s reactions will be something along the lines of, “oh it’s over?”
There are other problems too. I enjoy a movie that takes it’s time but Maggie is slow to a fault. There are too many scenes of brooding characters looking around. Even at 95 minutes, the film could have been trimmed. There’s also two cop characters who are troubling. One of them is sympathetic to Schwarzenegger and his family and the other is not. They’re both one note caricatures and can best be described as ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’. And Joely Richardson, as Schwarzenegger’s wife and Breslin’s step mom, isn’t given much to do beyond looking around uncomfortably.
Still, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about Maggie. I appreciated it’s smart world-building and the way it didn’t let that overshadow it’s characters. One question I did ask myself midway through was this: “would I be as into this if Schwarzenegger wasn’t in it?” The answer is a resounding yes. The movie is good enough and a different enough take on the zombie genre to be a success with a different actor in the role. His presence is an added bonus. But it’s a bonus that suggests that there can be more to the third stage of Schwarzenegger’s career than him saying, “I’ll be back” for the six-millionth time. Let’s just hope he realizes that too.
Maggie is currently playing in select theaters. It is also available On Demand, iTunes, and Amazon Instant.