If someone had told me 10 years ago that one day Arnold Schwarzenegger would be acting with a straight face in a serious drama film, I probably would’ve laughed. Not because I don’t like Arnie. Quite the opposite, actually. But I bet my 11 year old self couldn’t possibly imagine a world where the oak of Austria would ever do such thing. As it turns out, though, he did make the transition. What is even more surprising is that he is magnificent. Yes, you heard me right. The big chunk of beef can emote, and more so than one would think.
“Maggie” tells the heartbreaking story of a father whose daughter has been infected by a deadly virus that turns everyone into flesh-eating zombies. There is nothing to do about it other than await the inevitable deterioration of body and soul. There is no cure, only quarantine. But Wade won’t let the authorities take his girl away, so instead he decides to bring her home and nurture her in the last months of her life.
This is not a zombie film. This is not a horror film. It’s not even a cautionary tale about the dangers of genetics and science. No, this is a story about human compassion, grief and death. It’s about how we slowly come to accept that some things in life are not fair. That sometimes unexpected events can change our lives forever. Would you kill the ones you love to set them free from the pain that’s been brought upon them by this world? When your sick daughter looks you deep in the eyes and begs you to shoot her, will you do it? The answers are not so simple, and neither is the film that tries to provide them. It’s an internal struggle unlike any other, to sit there and watch your child fade away, falling apart at the seams, knowing that you can’t do anything but witness the horror. All you can do is be there for them in their final moments of suffering, assuring them that no matter what happens, they won’t die alone and without being loved.
To say that Schwarzenegger has to carry the film on his shoulders would be an understatement. Everything is on him, because if he can’t bring all those feelings of doubt and inner conflict to the screen, the movie is never going to work. Thankfully he does a fantastic job of portraying the loving father, Wade. It’s really extraordinary how much warmth and kindness his face radiates, especially in a world as grey and lifeless as this one. At no point did I see a hero or a man of action. What I saw was something much more powerful. Something I never thought I’d see from someone whose trademarks are one-liners and bodybuilding. I saw a real human being with real human emotions, acting like a real human would do. Strip away all the muscles, and you might find that there is more to Arnold than meets the eye. I was as shocked as anybody, but I’m glad he took the leap. It just goes to show how incredibly talented the man really is.
But it’s not just Schwarzenegger who gets to shine here. Abigail Breslin is so convincing as the titular character, that whenever she suffers, we suffer with her. When she cries, we cry. When she is happy, we are happy. Much of that is also due to the amazing practical effects applied to make it truly look like she’s in the worst of conditions. I also can’t forget to applaud first time director Henry Hobson, whose subtle direction and magnetic style keep you fixated to the screen from the very first frame to the very last. Along with his writer, John Scott, and his cinematographer, Lukas Ettlin, he has gone beyond the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Scott’s use of minimal dialogue perfectly shows just how little there is to say in a situation like this, where all hope is essentially gone, and where it’s hard to even express how you feel. Ettlin’s bleak shots adds further gravity to that thought, proving that “Maggie” is a triumph of realism and observational truth.