When watching a genre film, be it Hitchcock or Romero, the most satisfying enjoyment often lies in a singular element being the film’s privilege; one aspect must absolutely be fantastical (or nightmarish), but all others are treated by the filmmakers with a persuasive sense of logic. Maggie announces its harrowing detail early with an ambitious bit of revisionism to zombie movie lore. And in some ways, the film’s variation of a zombie infection that takes six to eight weeks to incubate is a fascinating wringing of new drama from an old trope.
…Unfortunately, Maggie also features another mulligan, and this one’s a doozy: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a rural Average Joe™ American farmer, complete with his pre-requisite Austrian accent and übermensch zombie-smashing capabilities. The result is an extreme vision of the fabled Z-Day apocalypse that is as incredulous as its dubious end-of-the-world social order.
Set in a mysterious dystopia where society soldiers on even after a zombie virus has overtaken the countryside, Maggie finds a unique spin on the genre since it takes up to two months to go from bitten to ravaging, shuffling corpse with a taste for blood.
And it is in this context that Wade (Schwarzenegger) locates his missing, wayward daughter. Having runaway from home some time ago, Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has since reemerged in a hospital with a zombie attack wound. The news is not good: she will be allowed to go home with Wade for at least six weeks before there is a check-up. However, these homecomings are merely a kindness for family members to say goodbye before the infected are shipped off to “quarantine,” a zombie slaughterhouse down the road that treats them like cattle.
Thus Wade, who sends his other children by a second wife (Joely Richardson) away from the farm, is left with a devastating choice. Wait until the authorities come to take Maggie away, or put her out of her misery himself.
From the start, Maggie seems to maraud around its premise as aimlessly as its context. The concept of a zombie virus taking so long that it could give people false hope for a cure or healing is a wonderful experiment for the end of the world. However, it is unclear whether the world ever ended. On the one hand, hospitals, sheriff departments, and schools all seem to be going on as if it’s another day in the heartland. Parents even let their teenagers get out into the wilderness for a little canoodling. By the same token, when the plot calls for zombies to appear as scavenging a desolate gas station or crossing their neighbors’ borders, the film without hesitation moves into Romero and The Walking Dead territory. The jarring contrast between apocalypse and small town mundane living remains an inexplicable distraction throughout Maggie, as there is no self-evident internal logic.
In fact, if it were not for the much more impressive turn by Abigail Breslin as the titular Maggie, a prodigal daughter who’s returned with bite marks, the whole thing could have been as festering as her increasingly dissolving arm.
Breslin, no stranger to zombie movies after appearing in 2009’s amusingly silly Zombieland, proves to be the saving grace as Maggie, a girl who made perhaps the same mistake as any other teenager and is punished with not only death, but also with a two-month walk up to it. She is forced to say goodbye to her half-siblings, her friends, and finally her family life, and when the focus is on her deteriorating body and soul, the film works very well.
Aided enormously by Luke Ettlin’s sorrowful cinematography, making use of vast, suggestively weeping spaces, and Michael Broom’s relatively subtle and sophisticated make-up work for an ever-rotting body, Breslin is a visage of melancholy throughout the film.
So when the film does focus upon her, such as when her best friend (Raeden Greer) gets her out of the house for a night to just remember what it’s like to be alive—and how fleeting that experience is about to be—the film finds genuine horror and beauty in its cocept. Yet, in spite of the title, Breslin is not supposed to be the one carrying this film.
At the end of the day, Maggie is a picture about a father being forced to do the most horrible deed in order to save his daughter from an even worse fate. And Schwarzenegger is never convincing, whether as he drops exposition about his farming ways or when he is needed to have a “moment” with Maggie that calls for more than brooding. To be sure, at the times that Wade is required to only stare at the ghoulish reality the world has become around him, or silently grieve about his daughter’s fate, he is quite good at striking that solitary pose. The years, lines on his face, and even a beard cuts a weary, noble outline in the distance. But he has to stay there since whenever the film calls upon him to get a little closer and offer an inner-life to Wade or drive the conflict of an anguished soul, a beard can only do so much.
In the right part, Schwarzenegger will always be very entertaining. But for an inherently dramatic role upon which this film is rooted, Maggie perhaps should have sought an action star with a more diverse background. One can easily imagine how different this movie might have been with Liam Neeson as the heartbroken papa, for example.
As it stands, the movie ultimately lies in Breslin’s much more capable hands by the end of the narrative, which is not how this journey began. Director Henry Hobson’s picture is still pretty looking with an artful consideration to a worn genre cliché. And with scenes as disturbing as when a young girl first learns a taste for flesh (though it’s not human), undoubtedly Maggie will develop a following of sorts. But unless you’ve already been transformed into a member of the hordes of zombie or Schwarzenegger fans out in the world, there is little chance that this film will leave a mark.
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