Maggie: Zombies and Arnie Played for Drama, Only Kinda Works

Maggie posterI remember back when the first trailers landed for Maggie, and the discussion around the film was centered on exactly one aspect: The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger in what is essentially a dramatic role. Oh yes, no gunplay, one liners, getting pregnant or playing his action-star persona for laughs this time. Beyond that, the only card Maggie appeared to have in its deck was that it was similarly playing the whole zombie genre for drama as well, putting aside the horror or pandemic angles in favor of telling the story of one man slowly watching his daughter become one of the living dead.

It seemed like it had potential, like maybe this could be the horror/drama sleeper hit of the season…..and then everything around the film got quiet for a while. I honestly don’t remember seeing it in any theaters and any Tweets I might have seen on it were so few and far between that they’ve been expunged from my memory like most of the more traumatic episodes of my highschool career. The other day, while boredly browsing Netflix at a friend’s place, I noticed it in the horror category and made a note of it for later.

Now, having watched the film, I can more or less safely say why the interest around this thing suddenly dissipated. Not so much that it’s bad, but more because it commits that most heinous of sins a movie can commit: it’s just kinda there. Sure, Schwarzenegger is essentially playing a normal (6 foot 2, 300 pound Austrian) human being, but while the novelty of that carries the film a certain distance, it never really demands anything of him beyond just toning it down a bit. Similarly, the zombies-as-drama angle is handled well enough, but ultimately its attempts at heart-string pulling feel awkward, relying way too much on harrowing monologues and not enough on performance.

Maggie takes place during an outbreak of the “necroambulist virus” (and I can’t tell if that’s a more clever or ham-fisted way to say zombies without actually saying zombies), which does prettymuch what it says on the tin, turning humans into flesh-eating walking corpses. Arnold plays a farmer who retrieves his daughter from an infected city and brings her back to her childhood home on his secluded farmhouse. There the daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, slowly begins to succumb to the virus, leaving Arnie to watch in horror as his daughter literally begins to rot before his eyes. Meanwhile, pressure mounts from the local police to send Breslin into quarantine…..or put her out of her misery.

Maggie insert 1

So right off the bat, the big draw of the movie is the prospect of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role that potentially demands that he do some acting rather than just yell and shoot things. But those going into Maggie expecting some dramatic star-turn like in JCVD or all the ones Sylvester Stallone keeps doing are in for some disappointment. Maggie doesn’t place much demand on Arnie as an actor, mostly just asking him to stare stoically into the middle distance with his jaw set. There’s no “big moment” where he breaks and the emotion of the situation overcomes him, he’s essentially maintaining the same macho stoicism through the whole movie that he maintained through most of his action roles. And he’s perfectly fine at doing that, but if you go into Maggie expecting him to try and pull off any dramatic heavy lifting, be ready for disappointment.

And as much as I don’t want to count this as a knock against the film, I can’t help but feel I would have respected it more if it had just taken the chance and given Arnie a big dramatic scene where he cries or breaks down or something. Yes, it may very well have backfired and come across as hilarious because…..well, it’s Arnold,……but at the same time I would have respected the film for taking the chance. As it is, the film basically plays it safe, sticking to Arnold’s proven strengths and never asking to go outside his comfort zone, performance-wise. The novelty of seeing Arnold in a dramatic role is totally there, and kinda interesting, but a novelty is all it ever really is.

If see this film -for- anyone, it should probably be Abigail Breslin as Maggie, who brings a subtlety and humanity to the role that puts her head and shoulder above everyone else in the cast, who all vary from ok to terrible.

Maggie insert 2

Most of the movie’s dramatic weight come from a series of dramatic monologues that dot the film’s running time, and while they’re mostly good monologues and decently performed, they do contribute to something to a “show, don’t tell” problem. A lot of the time, we’re left to sit and listen as characters -tell- us about the drama and heartache the current situation has put them in, as we hear stories of family members lost and the acceptance of imminent and painful death from the infected. Dramatic monologues are all well and good, and can be used effectively, but I feel like Maggie relies on them a bit too much, when it could have gotten the same effect across through action, conversation or other means. Once you get to the second or third time the film stops so that some side character we’ve just met spends a few minutes telling us their tale of woe, it becomes a bit tiresome.

This is especially true since Maggie‘s visuals and direction are actually pretty good, in a very “late 2000s, early 2010s American indie” kinda way. Lots of unmotivated camera movement and non-linear editing as we cut to and from shots of nearby objects fading gently in and out of focus. In reminded me a bit of Upstream Color in that vaguely dream-like, meditative quality. Or at least it did. Somewhere around the one-hour mark the formal elements seemed to become a lot more rote, like the ambitious young film school graduate who filmed the first two-thirds had to leave the project suddenly, leaving the much more by-the-numbers assistant director of photography in his place.

Maggie insert 3

If you’re going in to Maggie purely on the basis of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a dramatic role, you’re probably not going into this for the right reasons. Yep, this is one of the few times I can think of that Arnie basically played a normal person, but the film’s use of him and his performance are both about as “safe” as you can imagine. Don’t expect anything beyond his normal stoicism, just with a bit more restraint.

As a zombie drama itself, totally divorced from the casting of Arnie, it’s prettymuch the definition of “all right”. It relies way too much on monologues to generate drama and audience engagement, and while Breslin carries a lot of the film, way too many of the supporting cast just aren’t up to it. It’s interesting as an experiment, both in casting and in the way it handles the zombie genre for something other than action or scares, but films like Romero’s first Dead trilogy and even Shaun of the Dead manage to get you way more involved and invested in the situation and the characters WITHOUT having to play the film as a straight drama that just so happens to be about zombies.

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