Schwarzenegger is mesmerizing and poignant as a powerless father in 'Maggie'
Director: Henry Hobson
Screenplay: John Scott 3
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Bryce Romero, Jodie Moore and Raeden Greer
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
There's a certain physical poetry to the best action stars. Even - or especially - the most cartoonish ones. They have such a peculiar relationship to their physical space - the severity with which they can alter it, transform it, just by the way they move. Like a virtuoso dancer, they can do all of a scene's talking with their movements alone. The grace with which an action star performs and what (not to mention how much) he or she can express with the body are all too often overlooked.
That has certainly always been true of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been typically presented in his films as a sort of spectacular anachronism. He never looks (or sounds) like he belongs. We watch him - the way he walks and carries himself, the way he effortlessly throws his frame around - and assume that he is immortal. He never dies (unless it's by his own choosing), and if there's anyone who needs salvation, rest assured he'll do the saving.
What director Henry Hobson does with Maggie - in which Schwarzenegger plays father to a daughter infected with a zombie virus - is invert that sense of physical poetry. Instead of embodying, as he so often does, all of the possibilities (or, as often as not, impossibilities) of the human body, Schwarzenegger, as Wade Vogel, is helpless. There is no hint of a miracle cure for his Maggie (Abigail Breslin). He can't save her from her fate. He is not racing against the clock to get her somewhere where she might stand a chance. He is simply waiting for her to "turn," and then die. The only question is the method of her demise.
While usually he can do so much while doing so little, here he can do so little despite being capable of so much. That sense of powerlessness is Maggie's most unshakeable effect, shaping both the sadness of the film itself and the effectiveness of Schwarzenegger's dramatic performance. He has always been a magnificent action star (and thus an underrated performer), but this is essentially his Superman II moment. He's been stripped of all his powers - he bleeds, he cries, he loses - and left to stand on the sidelines, helplessly watching his only daughter succumb to the virus day by day.
No doubt his movie-star legacy helps carry some of that poignance. He's certainly not as big or imposing as he used to be (though he's still more than formidable). For once he's allowing himself to show his age (turns out it's a good look). But what's left of that once-Mr. Universe physique is still more than palpable underneath Wade Vogel's plaid shirt and khaki pants. He does get to use his physicality as a weapon a few times during the film - a scuffle with the cops; a couple of brief encounters with the walking dead; and once solely as intimidation - but those moments are the closest we get to the superhero we're so used to seeing.
Hobson deserves a lot of credit for resisting the temptation to do more of that with his action-star leading man, instead recognizing he could do something more thoughtful and interesting by turning all of the actor's most iconic qualities around on him. And in that light, Schwarzenegger shines. He's always had a singularly expressive face, but he plays completely different notes in this performance. Transformed by crow's feet, a wrinkled brow and a greying beard, he comes at it with a wholly new and surprising range of emotion. His eyes are heavy with concern, in place of his customary assuredness. His gait is aged and weary, rather than cocksure. It is a performance more in line with the gruff sadness we'd expect from a Nick Nolte or Ray Winstone, but with the steadfast physical presence that is all Arnold's own.
For the movie as a whole, not everything works. Certain aspects seem conspicuously under-written; the script could have used some more fleshing out. To Breslin's credit, she nicely carries a few terrific scenes of her own when Dad is out of the picture. But for the most part, the material either between the two of them or just focusing on Wade alone is the strongest, and I'd argue Maggie could have used even more of it. Schwarzenegger's absence in a few lesser sequences is too plainly felt.
Like countless apocalyptic movies before it, this one has a faded color scheme, but Hobson and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin's approach to a tired style yields some pretty interesting results. Yellow has been largely stripped out, leaving mostly muted pinks and blues. The film's blood is often dark brown, with only hints of red. Like so many of the film's decisions, that palette emphasizes character over scenery and spectacle, giving it a near-monochromatic effect at times, similar to, yet distinct from, other 21st Century zombie flicks (or TV shows).
Maggie is probably as close as Schwarzenegger is going to get to making a character drama, so perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how easily he takes to it. He's made such a career of being effortlessly larger than life, it never really struck us that he could work so well - in large part because of the inherent contradiction - as a normal man. Maybe 30 years ago he couldn't have pulled this role off. He's always been an iconic presence, but now, weathered by time, he can give us a performance of subtle grace notes and unexpected fragility. I know there are more unnecessary Terminators and Conans and even (oy) Expendables in the pipeline for him, but let's hope there's still more where this one came from.