Friday, May 8, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: MAGGIE (2015)

(US/Switzerland - 2015)

Directed by Henry Hobson. Written by John Scott 3. Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, J.D. Evermore, Douglas M. Griffin, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer. (PG-13, 95 mins)

Once upon a time, the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a zombie movie would mean plenty of action, horror, and the expected shouting of "Aim fah da head!" In his bumpy transition back to full-time acting since a decade in politics, Schwarzenegger hasn't enjoyed the box office blockbusters he had in his heyday, with only THE EXPENDABLES 2 and THE EXPENDABLES 3 being big moneymakers, though ESCAPE PLAN was a modest hit, but those were group efforts done with Sylvester Stallone and others. Elsewhere, the enjoyable THE LAST STAND and the dismal SABOTAGE were met with utter disinterest and absolutely tanked, and served as further proof that the geriatric action guys don't do well solo anymore (witness Stallone's fun BULLET TO THE HEAD bombing as well). Perhaps that's why Schwarzenegger chose now, at the age of 67, to take on the most unusual role of his career in MAGGIE, a moving, character-driven drama that happens to take place during a zombie apocalypse.

Shot in Louisiana two years ago, from a script by first-time screenwriter John Scott 3 that's been bouncing around Hollywood for several years, the low-budget MAGGIE opens in the midst of a viral outbreak that's rendered the major cities deserted wastelands. The government has turned the inner cities into quarantine zones for the infected, who have an average of eight weeks from the point of infection before they fully "turn" into flesh-eating zombies. Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin) left her home for the city after becoming infected from a bite on the arm, but as the film opens, her father Wade (Schwarzenegger) has spent two weeks trying to find her before locating her in a barely-staffed hospital. Wade's intent is to take her home but the doctor advises him to return her to the quarantine zone when she enters the final stages before her turn. A proud, self-reliant farmer and Christian family man, Wade will not hear of letting Maggie die alone, surrounded by strangers and other infected, instead insisting on having her live out her final weeks at home with him and her stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson), who sends the couple's two younger children off to stay with her sister while Maggie undergoes her turning.

The grieving process already underway, Maggie is relatively normal for the first few weeks, but as her body slowly decomposes and rots, and her increased sense of smell draws her to human and animal flesh, she has moments where she can still be a normal teenager. She laughs and reminisces with her dad, usually about her late mother. She hangs out with friends, some of whom are infected and in the early stages of turning. Through it all, Wade does his best to keep a stiff upper lip and be the rock that he's always been for his little girl, but it often proves too much to bear. He's already lost his wife (her death predates the outbreak, so while it's never specified and doesn't need to be, she likely died of cancer) and since he refuses to turn Maggie over to the medical teams in quarantine--which gets him into hot water with the local sheriff--he's burdened with the task of killing what was once his daughter when her transformation is complete.

MAGGIE is an extremely dour, downbeat film, shot in dark, muted tones with a grim, funereal mood throughout. The "turning" is a powerful metaphor that will resonate with anyone who's seen a family member or friend face the last stages of a terminal illness. They'll recognize the overwhelming helplessness felt by Wade, who's always been there to protect his family but seems lost facing the realization that there is absolutely nothing he can do to make Maggie better. With his craggy face and his shoulders slumped with age (which didn't work to his advantage in SABOTAGE), the stunt casting of Schwarzenegger is inspired and spot-on. We've always taken leaps and allowed a generous amount of wiggle room when it comes to his acting. Even when he's playing US military guys or Texas sheriffs, his appeal and his screen presence have helped audiences overlook the often cumbersome Austrian accent and his occasionally awkward line deliveries that fans often endearingly quote (think "Get to da choppah!" or "It's not a too-mah!"). Schwarzenegger delivers a low-key performance that's unlike anything he's done before, and the fact that he's playing an Austrian-accented rural farmer never once becomes a distraction. His scenes with an excellent Breslin are often very touching, especially when he tells her how much of her mother's spirit she has in her, or when, on the ride back after an unpleasant checkup with the doctor midway through her turning, he makes her smile by playing a tape of Oscar Brown, Jr's "Maggie," and the shared look between the two conveys the kind of warmth and fond memories that words don't need to express.

Scott 3 and debuting director Henry Hobson (who designed the opening credits for THE WALKING DEAD) never let things get maudlin or sappy. Maggie's decline is treated matter-of-factly and comes as no surprise to anyone, as the outbreak's been ongoing and they've seen it all before (recognizing Wade's staunch refusal to quarantine Maggie, her doctor's last bit of advice to him is "Make it quick"). We see a couple of shambling zombies but the apocalypse has already taken place, with big city highways deserted and fields in the outlying areas seemingly constantly ablaze. MAGGIE turns the focus on an element of zombie lore that's been largely unexplored outside of the slow turning of Scott H. Reiniger's hot-dogging Roger in George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979): the time between infection and transformation. But even then, Roger didn't have time to get sentimental ("You got a hell of a lot more to do before you can afford to lose me") and despite the same certain inevitability that Maggie faces, promised "I'm gonna try not to come back." Wade and Maggie face her fate with bravery and her final act demonstrates a level of compassion not usually found in the genre, proof that no matter how sick you become and how much your body degrades and turns against itself before it finally dies, you're still you and that sense of who you are can never be completely taken away. MAGGIE isn't a typical summer horror movie, and it's surprising that everyone involved on the business end didn't force Hobson to turn it into one (Schwarzenegger was one of 21 credited producers, so he obviously believed in the project). It's a small film that Lionsgate recognized wouldn't be a commercial hit, which is likely why they relegated it to their arthouse Roadside Attractions division and released it on VOD. And that's fine, because a thoughtful, offbeat film like MAGGIE will cultivate an audience over time and remain relevant and effective much longer than a by-the-numbers zombie shoot 'em up with a quipping Ah-nuld and shitty Bulgarian CGI ever would.

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