Perhaps understandably, much of the interest surrounding Maggie – the debut feature from director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3 – has been the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a low-key dramatic role. With a remit to emote as a grieving father, and stripped of the option to slip into action sequences, can Arnie hold his own?
That has become the narrative surrounding Maggie, but what’s actually important is that the film – which is a sort-of mash-up of the family drama and zombie genres – is generally successful in what it tries to do.
Set in a blighted future, Maggie depicts a world suffering after the outbreak of a virus that turns people into zombie-like creatures before killing them. Once bitten, the victim will turn steadily more feral, more unable to recognise their humanity and, eventually, die. Arnie plays Wade, a father whose daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has just been released from hospital after having been bitten. With her fate seemingly sealed, how will the family cope?
The film is a sombre meditation on a stressful family ordeal, and very rarely stretches beyond that. Those expecting a horror film will be disappointed – this is rarely scary in the traditional sense. But what works, crucially, is the bond between father and daughter, and the haunting sense that Maggie’s days are numbered. In a way, the structure is reminiscent of a standard tearjerker: Maggie’s condition is established, and we’re then allowed to build a relationship with her before things get worse. But the film’s twist on the zombie genre helps it to avoid feeling overly exploitative – as to do the lead performances.
Arnie (who, incidentally, is also one of the producers) is top billing for this low-budget production – understandably, the promo material is focusing on the biggest name involved – but the film belongs primarily to Abigail Breslin, who is on good form as a girl coming to terms with what could be her final few weeks on Earth. It’s not an easy role, but she gives it believability, even when the film strains a little too hard to be earnest. Opposite her, Schwarzenegger gives one of the deepest, certainly one of the most subtle, performances of his career. Yes, he’s required to be meditative for much of the runtime, but this is a heavy role and he carries the emotional moments too. There’s one very nicely played scene while Wade fixes his car and Maggie reads nearby that has a lovely, familial feel; it just goes to show that Schwarzenegger can be a better actor than we tend to think, given some decent material to work with.
The film doesn’t really stray from its primary register of gently dispensed despair (occasionally drifting close to cheese), but its single-mindedness is a strength, too. David Wingo’s at times lovely score holds it all together, although I did feel it could’ve been used a tad more sparingly at times. There are one or two hiccups in the script, but in general Hobson and Scott are proficient at portraying Maggie’s decline without resorting to too much explanatory dialogue.