The name Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t usually appear in the same sentence as “indie” or “arthouse”, let alone “drama” – but here we have them all in Maggie, an unheralded little marvel of a film.
If there was anything really different the Governator could do in this second phase of his film career, this is it. By not reprising his 1980s action hero archetype or falling back on his killer cyborg template, Schwarzenegger flexes an entirely different set of muscles here.
And when it’s all over, you might find yourself doing something you never thought possible at an Arnold Schwarzenegger film either.
Let’s consider what we have here: there are zombies, or people infected with a necroambulist virus (“dead walking”, see what they did there), and they are driven to chow down on people, spreading the infection.
But this is no gore-drenched collection of spectacular zombie deaths, or deaths by zombie; there’s much more graphic stuff on pay-TV these days. It’s a drama, one in which the plague and its heavy toll are carved into the faces of every character, where we are never allowed to forget the lost humanity of those zombies that do get killed in the course of the film.
Survivors roaming the land in war wagons, or wielding long-barrelled revolvers and samurai swords, making declarations about surviving at any cost – all that belongs in a different universe from the one in which Maggie is set. This is somewhere, somewhen in the American heartland after the worst of the crisis has passed but the threat remains serious.
Teenager Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin) is the only child of widowed farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger). When we first see them together, it’s in the quarantine wing of a hospital. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and infected; in about eight weeks, she will be “turned” and attack everyone around her.
Wade gets Maggie released into his care thanks to a friend’s influence. He brings her home, but second wife Caroline (Joely Richardson) decides to send her own kids off to her sister’s just as a precaution.
From here, the film deals mainly with Maggie’s slow deterioration as the symptoms manifest one by one.
It is this part of the film that makes a very relatable connection to anyone who has journeyed with a loved one suffering through a creeping, gradual, debilitating illness.
Many of us may find the protagonists’ experiences familiar: the good days and bad days, the outbursts, the repression of emotions in the name of being “strong” for others, the rage at dehumanising pronouncements by people with black holes where their bedside manner should be.
More positively, John Scott 3’s debut screenplay succeeds in capturing the resolve of its principals to hold on to their humanity in a crushingly dehumanising situation, and in celebrating those rare little islands of joy in a raging river of misery.
Director Henry Hobson, stretching his wings after serving as title sequence designer on various shows from MI-5 to The Walking Dead, handles the looming tragedy with a sure hand. He takes his time letting the horrors of Maggie’s worsening condition unfold, helped along by a strong performance from Breslin and some subtle make-up effects.
Sometimes, though, he tends to show us similar things too often, which only serves to increase our awareness of the film’s main problem, its languid pace (how many shots of that darn fox sniffing around the woods did we need, anyway, or Caroline getting spooked by Maggie). This sometimes works against the urgency of Maggie’s situation.
Breslin portrays the heartbreak of seeing her world and dreams fall apart with surprisingly little of the teen angst you would expect. And you realise, Hobson and Scott have enough respect for their audience that they don’t overload us with exposition but leave some relationships and past incidents for us to figure out.
As for Schwarzenegger, his performance here is not exactly a revelation – but it is markedly different from anything else he’s done. If he intended Douglas Quaid, the clueless construction worker from Total Recall, to seem like an everyman, it’s only now as Wade Vogel that he really convinces us he can play one.
Hobson capitalises on the best of Schwarzenegger’s abilities with tight closeups and long shots. letting his gaze and body language paint a picture of a man who is already mourning inside but is struggling to acknowledge the reality of his situation. It’s the most sympathetic turn ever for a man whose most expressive feature at one time (before the oceans drank Atlantis) was the vein of his bicep.
I find that one of the best places to seek refuge when the world gets too oppressive is the comforting darkness of a cinema hall. Maggie, bless its soul, offered both such escapism and also a sobering reminder that few people ever ask for the bad sh*t that happens to them. But the important thing is that we face it on our own terms.
Director: Henry Hobson
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, Jodie Moore