The films Arnold Schwarzenegger was making at the peak of his career weren’t exactly known for their dramatic understatement, so if the likes of The Terminator and Predator are still fresh in your mind, then the Austrian Oak’s more recent appearances may seem a little jarring to you. Coming not too long after the downbeat zombie drama Maggie, Aftermath, produced by Darren Aronofsky, sees Schwarzenegger drift further into sadness and introspection – and, we have to say, he acquits himself extremely well.
Aftermath’s loosely based on the true story of a real accident that happened 15 years ago in Germany, when a pair of passenger planes tragically collided in mid-air. Screenwriter Javier Gullon (who wrote Denis Villeneuve’s fabulously strange Enemy) moves the story to Ohio, where migrant construction worker Roman (Schwarzenegger) is waiting at the airport for his family arrives when an official pulls him aside to give him the bad news: their plane’s crashed with no survivors.
We watch Roman’s emotional collapse, as he rapidly withdraws from his ordinary life and retreats to his private world of grief. His attempts to wrest some kind of apology from the airline responsible is met with blank stares from a group of smooth-faced lawyers, who stare back at Roman over a polished conference table littered with out-of-court settlement papers. On the other side of the class divide, there’s Jake Bonanos (Scoot McNairy), the air traffic controller who was the only guy looking at the radar when the collision occurred. Jake’s eventually cleared of any wrong-doing, but the pall of the tragedy still hangs over him; he’s quietly forced out of his job and relocated, while his relationship with his wife (Maggie Grace, on a break from being kidnapped in all those Taken films) is stretched to breaking point.
Aftermath is therefore a two-hander, the story flicking between Roman and Jake as they flail around in their personal swamps of despair. McNairy, in particular, is excellent as Jake, and the scene in which he first realises the full magnitude of the accident is played with just the right level of horror and disbelief. Unfortunately, Aftermath doesn’t really have a whole lot more on its mind other than guilt, anguish and foreboding; it’s surely telling that, even at a duration of around 90 minutes including credits, the film still feels overlong.
Part of the problem is the sparsity of actual drama; Schwarzenegger and McNairy spend long stretches on their own, sullenly performing daily tasks – mending a fence in the case of the former, working a customer service job at a cluttered desk for the latter – and we don’t really get to learn a whole lot about them other than their respective tragedies. Director Elliott Lester (Blitz, Nightingale) gives the story a metallic, autumnal hue, while Mark Todd’s music – redolent of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line – hints at the meditative tone of a Terrance Malick movie. Another comparison point might be Steve McQueen’s glacial sex addiction piece Shame, or Kenneth Lonergan’s portrait of grief, Manchester By The Sea; both told uncluttered, simple stories about complicated people.
What Aftermath lacks, however, is the keen-eyed observations of everyday foibles that those films so reliably captured. When we do spot the odd quirk, they don’t quite ring true, such as a scene where Jake and his wife reach an impasse in their relationship over some undercooked scrambled eggs, of all things. Add to this the impenetrable gloom of its subject matter, with no moments of levity to provide a respite, and you’re left with granite slab of sadness that is profoundly difficult to sit through without actually saying anything particularly, well, profound.
Aftermath provides late-career Schwarzenegger with another showcase for his weathered charisma, and also proves that McNairy’s a great actor who deserves to be in more stuff. They both deserve a project with a bit more dramatic meat on its bones.
Aftermath is out now in selected UK cinemas.