We’re all dying. You. Me. Everyone. We all realize this on some level, even carry in our minds a ballpark number of years we probably have left, but when you’re told that you’re absolutely going to die, everything changes. For you and for everyone whose life you touch. It is about this inevitable, inexorable slide with which Henry Hobson’s debut directorial film, Maggie, examines. Which is a shock, because this is also a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Arnold plays Wade – a farmer whose teenage daughter ran away from home and turned up in an urban clinic after having being bit by a victim of the “necroambulist virus” (literally The Walking Dead). The “Z” word is never used in the film, and the grounded approach the film takes to this as a pandemic rather than a thriller/monster angle that is one of its greatest strengths. Nothing is laid out neatly. You don’t get a synopsis of what the world is, how long this has been going on, even how Maggie’s mother died and how Wade came to be married to Carol (Joely Richardson) and her two young children. All of the answers to these things are hinted at and poked at in dialogue, radio broadcasts, nightmares, etc. The full picture is left half-painted for the viewer to finish.
As opposed to The Walking Dead, where society has completely broken down and humans are subsisting on a tribal level, in Maggie you get the sense of a world that’s dealt with this for a long time. They’ve learned a lot about the virus. Society has begun to adapt around it. Life is going on and this is just a new horrible factor. There are defined stages to the virus. Post-bite, the victim experiences symptoms internally, but it’s not until the 6-8 week range that the bitten “turn” and become feral and dangerous. With the healthcare system overwhelmed, victims are initially treated, registered and then released to their families. When the “turn” nears, the victims are rounded up by law enforcement and put into quarantine camps, essentially penning them up together to die.
There are a lot of times in this movie, where Maggie could have had cancer, and the film would’ve been little different. The depression and sadness; the helplessness and awkward moments; the forced cheerfulness and trite mantra of “making the best of the time left”. That’s crap and Hobson knows it. Magical moments and ends full of poignant meaning are a fiction. It’s a quiet, tense and maddening horror for the person faced with death and the loved ones who have to watch and increasingly make decisions for them. Wade will not let his daughter go to a quarantine camp and the police will come to get her. This scenario is behind the eyes of the characters from the beginning of the film, and the period in-between (which is largely filled with vignettes and world building moments about the family, the town and this world) is an increasingly tense burn.
Maggie is a gorgeous film. It’s unrelentingly bleak; too much so actually. The film is morose to a fault with what you could criticize as one-note storytelling, but I think that’s more the result of this being Hobson’s first time in the director’s chair than anything else. I’m not kidding when I say this film absolutely deserves Oscar consideration for cinematography. The desaturated color palate only adds to Lukas Ettlin’s fantastic imagery.
Abigail Breslin is fantastic, as she has always been fantastic in everything since she first exploded on the scene in Signs and was Oscar-nominated for Little Miss Sunshine. People have been going nuts over Schwarzenegger’s performance in this film and I’m not able to go so far as to say he’s fantastic, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn in a dramatic performance this strong. The Arnold-isms that permeate his films are gone. He’s certainly a strong, physical presence, but with the changes to his hair and some nuance in how he moves, he seems more like a craggy man who’s worked the fields than he does someone who has been chasing Sarah Connor through time as a living death machine for thirty years. Even his accent, which I don’t even think he’s even ever tried to moderate before, is extremely muted. The best scenes in the film are just he and Breslin talking as father/daughter.
Is Maggie a masterpiece? No. It’s not even a great film. It’s a good film with greatness just under the ice. I think is too bleak even for its subject matter. The vignettes that fill the movie’s middle almost feel like abbreviated TV episodes. This story would have made a fantastic mini-series if the writing could have kept to its quality while fleshing out more of the characters and these mini-stories, giving you more of the world through the clever side mentions in conversations and media. I think it’s absolutely worth watching (which you can do from home via streaming if your theater doesn’t have it). This is a Schwarzenegger that I’d wish I’d seen more of over his career, and a singular entry into the weird pantheon of zombie films.