Directed by Henry Hobson.
2015. Rated PG-13, 95 minutes.
Douglas M. Griffin
The world is in the throes of a zombie apocalypse. Each day, more and more people are becoming one of “the infected.” As their condition worsens, they are put into quarantine, either by their families or rounded up by law enforcement. In dangerous situations it is acceptable to kill one of them since they present an imminent threat to one’s health and well-being. It has not yet been figured out what caused this. Maggie (Breslin) is one of the newly infected. Afraid of being shipped off to quarantine, or hurting her family, she has run away from home, but winds up in the hospital where her father Wade (Schwarzenegger) finds her and brings her home. She is expected to become a full-fledged zombie within a few weeks. Wade and his wife Caroline (Richardson) try to care for and protect her. Maggie’s condition is no secret and local police are always in Wade’s ear to “do the right thing” when the time comes and turn his daughter over to the authorities. As you might expect, this eventually ceases to be a request.
Based on the premise, this would seem to be a movie tailor-made for Schwarzenegger’s strengths as an entertainer. The world is full of zombies. Just give him access to lots of guns, lots more ammo, supply him with a steady stream of cheeky one-liners, and watch him go. Imagine what Zombieland would have been had Woody Harrelson’s character been played by Schwarzenegger and was truly a one-man-gang. Once Maggie actually starts, you realize it’s not that, at all. There are certainly times where he is called to take action, but it’s in service of a much more thoughtful story than we’re used to seeing when we watch an Arnie flick. The pace is more deliberate than we’re used to as it pulls us into the story rather than immersing us in sound and fury. The tone is one of quiet dread rather than bullet-riddled adventure. The role of Wade requires a performance that, even after all these years, would seem to be out of Schwarzenegger’s range. It requires subtlety, heartfelt compassion, and vulnerability. Much to his credit, and my surprise, he gives us all of those things and is never less than believable. I’d go so far as to say he’s actually excellent. While it won’t go down as being anywhere near as iconic as some of his other work, this is the best performance of his career. It’s certainly the fullest. He delivers us a real, rounded human being, not a one-note action hero.
Roughly half, probably closer to two thirds of the film is viewed from Wade’s vantage point. The rest is told through the eyes of Abigail Breslin’s titular character. Breslin continues to show growth as an actress and is more than up to the task. We’re not just told she is a teenager in an impossible situation, Breslin shows it every moment she’s on screen. We can’t help but ache for her. When sharing the screen with Schwarzenegger she is still allowed to shine. Breslin is alternately showy and restrained when necessary, but always pained. Her work gives us two excellent performances in a movie where most of us were expecting none.
The acting on display is, at least partly, a product of an excellent script. It never rushes, but it also never dawdles. It moves at a solid pace, managing to tell its story succinctly while simultaneously giving its characters room to breathe. This is the payoff of the decision to tell a zombie apocalypse story on a very personal level. Instead of the usually broad scope employed to show the world overrun with the undead, Maggie treats this as the story of a family with a dangerously sick member. Through this family we experience their compassion, curiosity, and fear. That fear is of what’s to come from Maggie herself, for sure, but it’s also of the decision they will soon have to make. Wade wrestles with this throughout the film. One thing he knows for sure is he doesn’t want anyone else making it for him. This is what drives the film in general, and Wade in particular. The screenplay by John Scott 3 (he really does use the number) handles all of this wonderfully. He endows his leading man with a vulnerability totally foreign to that actor, perfectly serving the film.
On its surface, Maggie is just another in the lengthy and growing line of zombie apocalypse movies and TV shows. That seems to be the reason, this one quietly came and went. Sure, Schwarzenegger isn’t the box office draw he once was, but it seems inconceivable one of his movies would gross less than two million dollars at the box office. However, its hushed presence on our collective radar is fitting. The world really is overrun with zombies these days. The Walking Dead, it’s clones, and a number of zombie-related movies have been making plenty of noise for a number of years, now. Maggie is set in a world currently being taken over by the creatures. However, the characters within are people tucked away in the folds of the earth, trying to eke out a quiet existence. It’s a task made much more difficult when that world interferes.