by Coop Cooper
I once joked many years ago that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career would have another shot in the arm if he ever took a role as a transvestite prostitute in an indie drama. I didn’t say that to insult the guy, I just meant he’s never taken a risk to try a starring role outside the bombastic action film genre (and the occasional high-budget, goofy comedy) he worked so hard to define in the 80’s and 90’s. Now, after 46 years of working in the film industry, ‘The Governator’ has finally taken that risk with the minimalist zombie indie tearjerker, “Maggie”.
As America recovers from a devastating zombie outbreak, rural farmer Wade (Schwarzenegger) desperately searches for his runaway teen daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) in the nearest big city. He finds her in a hospital where he learns she has been bitten by a zombie, but has approximately two weeks before she turns into one herself. He is allowed to take her home, but the doctors make it clear the authorities will eventually arrive to take her to ‘Quarantine’ which is essentially a hospice for the infected where they are treated like animals and eventually put down by painful lethal injections. At home, Maggie’s step-siblings are sent away to stay with relatives as she settles in to await the inevitable. Wade does his best to comfort her in her sadness while her stepmother (Joely Richardson), who experiences the worst of Maggie’s condition, fears her in silence. As Maggie’s dangerous symptoms progress, Wade wrestles with the decision of what to do when his daughter’s mind is gone and only the monster remains.
As sad and depressing as it sounds, “Maggie” is also bittersweet and moving. There are scenes here I have never seen in a zombie film. When Wade puts down two zombies about to attack Maggie in the woods, the consequences don’t end there. Afterwards, we learn these were the friendly neighbors as Wade goes to their empty house, looks over their family photos and mourns their painful loss. Maggie’s last night out with her friends is another powerful scene in the film, especially when she has a tender moment with a boy in her group who is also dying of the infection. When Maggie’s behavior starts to change and her body starts to decay, it feels more tragic than frightening. I can’t decide if the disease in this film is trying to be a metaphor for some sort of affliction plaguing modern families, but regardless, the tone is consistently loving, yet melancholy and the subject matter is handled with care.
The Oscar-nominated Breslin is predictably effective in her role as Maggie. She plays it with ease and shares a wonderful chemistry with Schwarzenegger, especially in the more lighthearted scenes. Schwarzenegger himself might not get a Best Supporting Actor nomination out of this, but his work here is probably the closest he’s come to it so far. I can’t ever recall seeing him genuinely cry in a film. I wonder if I ever will again.
There are a couple of problems with the script, the most notable being that Schwarzenegger’s character disappears for a large part of the second act with no good explanation as to why. It would seem the story left him to his chores so the plot could focus on Maggie for awhile as she does some of the things she loved most for the last time, but the absence was glaring. Also, Maggie’s initial running away from home was never explained and the issue is never confronted. One could surmise that the explanation involved drugs and that her current condition negates that particular addiction so it is now a moot point, but some sort of explanation and reconciliation should have been attempted. Finally, I accept the ending as moving and well done, especially with the twist I did not see coming, but I feel we were cheated out of Schwarzenegger’s big dramatic moment. I felt like I needed to see his mourning after it was all over, but I suppose that would’ve been to vulgar a display of grief for such a stoic icon.
Overall, I’m impressed at how Schwarzenegger finally tried something different and succeeded. I hope he continues to experiment in-between his big action films and take some interesting indie roles. Of course he made fun of himself in the 1993 film “The Last Action Hero” playing the role of ‘Hamlet” in a trailer for a fake movie, almost to suggest that any attempt at serious cinema would be absurd with him in the starring role. Lest we forget the line, “To be or not to be… Not to be!” BOOM! Looks like he has even proven himself wrong after all these years.
“Maggie” is currently available on pay-per-view and in limited theaters.
3 and ½ out of 5 stars