Henry Hobson’s feature debut Maggie raises certain expectations, and then slyly delivers something else.
First up, after opening with a daughter’s frantic phone call to her father (“Please don’t come for me… I love you”) and radio chatter about a “worldwide breakout”, Maggie sets itself up to be a zombie flick. The epidemic that reduces its patients, over the course of several weeks, into putrescent, inarticulate flesh-eaters is even called the “necroambulist” virus – a monstrous hybrid formed from the Latin for ‘walk’ and the Greek for ‘dead’. And on his way back from the Kansas City hospital where he has just picked up his recently bitten, teenaged daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is confronted in a gas station with one of these once-human creatures, and forced to break its neck. Yet in focusing less on zombie action than on the last gasping phase of the pre-undead and on the loved ones who must let – even help – them go, Hobson and first-time screenwriter John Scott III have fashioned a meditative piece that will resonate strongly with anyone who has had to deal with terminal illness and the harrowing dynamics of loss.
The mere presence of Schwarzenegger (an actor who is often merely a presence) might suggest a lumbering, dumb-assed, nodding-and-winking approach to genre tropes, but here he is craggy, grizzled, bearded, and utterly devoid of one-liners. That his character, an immigrant mid-western farmer, has been widowed, some years before the plot starts, of a wife named Sarah (née Connors?) hints at this film’s considerable distance from its lead actor’s Terminator past – even if that past still remains very much his present in Terminator Genisys, also released in 2015.
Like Henry Rollins in Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died (2015), Schwarzenegger plays his age, dials right down the violent excess for which he is best known, and becomes a monolithic icon of wistful survival. He may at different points in the film carry an axe and a shotgun, but he is reluctant to use them (and we never see him do so). Whether all this restraint from an actor who was never particularly demonstrative in the first place amounts to his best performance is up for debate (can even less of less be more?) – but the film certainly positions him in a rôle very different from those that he has played before. I never imagined that I would be genuinely moved by a film with Schwarzenegger.
Of course a ‘film with Schwarzenegger’ need not be a ‘Schwarzenegger film’ – and as even the title suggests, Breslin’s Maggie is the centre here. Petulant and anguished, she is already cutting herself off from the living (a notion literalised in a scene where she carves off her own necrotised finger), and – whether because of the advancing ravages of the disease or through her own choice – withdrawing from the society that already sees her as a dead girl walking. Hiding both herself and her symptoms behind oversized sunglasses, she is so alienated and internalised that the rare smiles which Breslin flashes during moments shared with her Schwarzenegger come as real, heartfelt grace notes.
The idea of a younger generation feeding off their parents has a long history in the zombie genre, traceable all the way back to George A. Romero’s rule-setting Night of the Living Dead (1968) – yet Maggie, like Paul Solet’s Grace (2009), plays with the idea of a parent’s self-sacrificing willingness to be eaten as an extreme expression of both love and loss. If Maggie represents a generation cut off in its prime, old man Wade is left sadly to witness her passing and reap the whirlwind – and his decision (although ultimately – and importantly – it is not just his decision) as to how to see this through to one of several inevitably traumatic ends forms the moral crux of the film. The choice that Wade and Maggie must face is whether to send her to the dehumanising state-run Quarantine where she will die alone amongst strangers, or to administer the lethal (and painful) cocktail of drugs to her at home, or to give her a quicker death, or just to let nature run its horrific course.
Although Wade has now remarried and had two more children with his second wife Caroline (Joely Richardson), he has come to be defined by grief, loss, and the honouring of memory. Early scenes in which we see him, in compliance with emergency laws, burning his own crops, reveal a figure faced with the destruction of his labour’s fruits, and of everything that he cherishes in life. The fact that this sequence is shot wide, in a wheat field, in the Malickian magic hour, suggests all at once an American idyll and its end. Wade, whose home still has a rotary phone, and who listens in his ancient – yet reliable – pickup truck (“I love this piece of crap”) to old songs on just-as-old cassette tapes, embodies the values of a wholesome, nostalgia-tinged past that no longer seems to have much place – although the film certainly holds out the possibility of sowing new seeds and starting over.
A lyrical if maudlin evocation of the American dream in rapid decline, Maggie pits the homespun ‘western’ family values of the rural homeland against the horrors of socialised medicine in the city, and comes with an overneat, oversentimental ending that is too easy and comfortable a solution to the complex dilemmas (about what qualifies in our times as a good death) that have been posed. If all this sounds like a deeply conservative Republican fantasy – and that it certainly is – consider this: the same film that stars one icon of the right and is named after another is also about the walking dead…
© Anton Bitel