A teenage girl in the Midwest becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that slowly turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father stays by her side.
In a post apocalyptic world, husband and second wife Wade and Caroline (a first rate Schwarzenegger and the always talented Joely Richardson) must now look after Wade’s infected daughter Maggie (Breslin) in the knowledge that soon they will have to kill her as she becomes a zombie in this bleak drama that is very different to the genre fodder we usually see.
The post-political world of Schwarzenegger returning to the film career that had brought him so much success was never going to be easy. Despite decent films such as The Last Stand and Sabotage and easy going cameos in The Expendables franchise, none of them were well received critically and in the first two, box office didn’t provide enough returns to herald a positive return for the Austrian-American’s career plans. So it is a brave move to attempt a drama in which he is an actor rather than an action star, especially in such a low key film as Maggie, which looks to put a fresh spin on an aspect of the horror genre that is currently so overcrowded.
This is a world in which doctors have no answers except to take the infected patients from their relatives within a limited time so that they can be quarantined and destroyed, leaving families clinging on to a brief period with their loved ones, a period that some cannot let go of, allowing the infected to turn. These are regular people trying to deal with a sick family member in the knowledge that they are helpless to do anything about it; and a child that knows only too well that their sickness is worsening and they will eventually come to threaten those they love the most; a world in which those who have lost struggle to face the reality that those who have turned are no longer the loved ones that they once knew.
There is a fear of the infected reminiscent of the early scare days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s in which fear and ignorance became more newsworthy that the plight of the victims and their loved ones. A place where fear of the infected reveals the small mindedness of the ignorant and the challenges facing both the victim and the wise that choose to show continued unconditional love and support. The waiting room scene in which a mother calls her children away from Maggie when she sees that the young girl is infected is nicely played and reveals a prejudice too existent still in the modern world.
This disease takes its time. No overnight or immediate change as we have seen in most other zombie films, but a slow, torturous transformation in which you have to helplessly tolerate the person you knew fading away, creating a metaphor for so many illnesses in real life and allowing time to engage with the characters and share their sense of pain. The relationship between Maggie (a moving performance by Abigail Breslin), the child trying to cope with the reality of infection and the knowledge that the life she knew is slipping away, and Wade centres the film and keeps it firmly away from what could so easily have descended into trite melodrama.
This is a father facing the choices of taking his increasingly infected daughter to quarantine where she will be killed by a lethal cocktail, keep her at home to administer the cocktail himself, or to kill her quickly when the change in her is near completion: abandonment to death by strangers or a mercy killing at home. The choices no parent should ever have to make.
The campfire scene as Maggie is reunited briefly with her friends (one of which, her former boyfriend, who is also infected) is a moving variant of high school life in which fear exists in some, but genuine love and support still exists in others, showing Maggie as a character that recognises what is to come, but can still show humanity to those in need.
Maggie is a film about time running out for those we love and the recognition that there is nothing we can do about it. Where friends make plans to see each other again, whilst understanding these plans simply cannot be met; a place where the infected are still people right up until their end. It’s a nicely presented vision that avoids the clichés that have so easily drifted into the horror genre for a while now, especially effective in moments such as stepmother Caroline briefly thinking Wade’s absence from the house is because Maggie has killed him. But, Maggie is changing and the person that she was is fading away, no longer eating but now smelling human flesh as food, creating fear in Caroline for herself and Wade and fear in Maggie that she will be sent to a quarantine where all of the infected, whatever stage they are at, are simply put in the same room to become meat for those that are the most advanced stage. The options are sadly inarguable. It is whether Maggie can fight until her final moment that is the question.
Lukas Ettlin’s subtle and gritty Cinematography aids immensely in setting the tone of realism and creates a pale, empty rural world in which survivors are isolated and trying to get by as best they can under the worst of circumstances, rather than imposing style over substance; while debut feature director Hobson allows the actors to give studied and simple performances that work with the well written script by John Scott 3, resulting in a solid piece of work.
Schwarzenegger will never be De Niro or Pacino (as he himself would freely admit), but here he gives a strong, measured and thoughtful performance, that will surprise many would be doubters, as the Everyman farmer trying to deal with a new world that is far from brave and the harsh reality of a beloved daughter becoming the thing of nightmares. The scene at a neighbour’s now abandoned house, where he sees the writing on the wall by a father who eventually turns is emotionally powerful and nicely underplayed by Schwarzenegger, resulting in a “who knew he could act?” moment, one of many in Maggie. Joely Richardson shows again as the stepmother why she is such a respected actress.
This is no action film or zombie splatterfest, but a slow burning drama that avoids the tropes and is both moving and engaging. It won’t be a box office hit, but hopefully it will find a cult audience that think well of it. Maggie deserves it.
Surprisingly good and highly recommended.
David Paul Hellings