The lines seem carved into his aging face. His eyes are heavy and sad, his beard unkempt, and his once majestic physique seems to be weighing him down rather than propping him up. This is not the Arnold Schwarzenegger of your childhood, with the one liners and the heavy artillery. In Maggie, Schwarzenegger is shedding his irony-fuleled action superstar skin in order to play Wade, the grieving father to a daughter who is slowly changing into a zombie.
The world of this post-zombie apocalypse is flat, gray and morose. The sky seems to always be filled with smoke, as farmers have been compelled to burn their fields as some sort of defense mechanism against the zombies, who are never called zombies. Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin, is bitten by another undead flesh eater in the nameless city, and Wade comes to get her and bring her back to their farm. But Wade knows she has only a few weeks before she will begin to change, her body will wither away and a zombie will take its place, hungry for human flesh. He will have to report her progress to the local authorities, represented here by two police officers. One is understanding of Wade’s apprehension, the other is scared and aggressive.
Wade and Maggie return to the secluded farm with Wade’s second wife, Caroline (Joely Richardson) and their two younger children, who are swiftly taken away to a relatives house to stay safe from what may become a dangerous Maggie. The rest of the film is a waiting game, with a great deal of introspection, fear, and resignation.
I was conflicted about Maggie. On the one hand, seeing Schwarzenegger in a role that required him to dig deep and find subtlety in his acting was something I never imagined he would be able to do. Schwarzenegger is hypnotizing in his understatement because he comes to the role with so many explosions and marble-mouthed one-liners in his past. His Wade has to kill in this film, but the killing comes with no joy or panache. It is utilitarian, regrettable, and it haunts Wade in the scenes afterward. Schwarzenegger truly displays the weight of the situation on his broad shoulders and sad eyes. And Breslin is becoming an adult actress herself. As Maggie, she shows a maturity and depth, especially in a scene in the middle where she has to say goodbye to her friends.
The acting is superb, but the film could use a bit of a push. As strange as this sounds, especially after praising Schwarzenegger for changing direction in his career so admirably, Maggie could use a little more energy. The introspective nature of the film causes the dramatic tension to stall at times, as Wade sits in his truck or stares at the burning horizon. First-time feature director Henry Hobson does have a specific vision for his film, and he shows everyone he has real talent. But the emotional pulse of the entire story stays so faint that the emotional impact of earlier scenes dissipate by the end.
And credit to the end for not selling out and going the expected direction. Maggie is uneven in its dedicated evenness, consistently morose enough to keep the overall impact at arm’s length. But it does succeed in the performances, both brilliant turns by Breslin and Schwarzenegger, who shows range I never knew was there. I only wish he would follow up Maggie with another challenging role, and not three sequels to his big-bicep spectacles from the 80s.