Arnold Schwarzenegger is not your average action hero in “Maggie.” The movie, the feature-length debut by British commercial director and title designer Henry Hobson, contains no impossible stunt work, hail of bullets, outrageous explosions or nefarious mega villains. Instead, as even-tempered midwestern farmer Wade, Schwarzenegger faces a far more daunting foe: the imminent death of his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin).
Bitten by a zombie before the story begins, Maggie’s plight doesn’t so much adhere to the standard tropes of the walking dead genre so much as it magnifies one of them — the slow, painful transformation of a zombie victim and the question of whether those around her have the courage to put her out of her misery. Needless to say, it’s a welcome change of pace for the actor as well as the material itself, which Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3 tackle with an impressive degree of restraint that strengthens its inevitably sentimental conclusion.
Captured in moody grays and browns by cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, “Maggie” is sometimes too brooding for its own good, but just as often manages to generate a genuine sense of melancholy. The atmosphere takes hold early on, when Wade drives through the vacant countryside while radio announcements explain the global impact of a zombie virus that has led the government to detain many civilians bitten by the infected before they turn. Such an unfortunate fate has befallen Maggie when Wade finds her in a medical facility, where doctors allow him to take her home in anticipation of her demise — essentially to give her palliative care until her condition worsens. At that point, he’s told, he’ll have to give her over to the authorities. But Wade has other plans.
The ensuing narrative almost exclusively unfolds on Wade’s farm, where Maggie’s condition increasingly worsens: Her skin stars to fray, her limbs grow loose and she vomits disgusting substances. While Wade continues to offer solace for his daughter, her unsettled stepmother (Jolely Richardson) and their young son both keep their distance, while the surrounding community grows increasingly paranoid. An abrupt encounter with escaped zombies from a nearby home mark one of the only moments of genuine terror, but it also carries the more ominous connotations of the fate that Wade and his daughter both know awaits her. Eventually, the movie becomes a tense and eerie two-hander with father and daughter holed up together in anticipation of a dark finale.
Despite the grim shadow that hangs over these developments, Scott 3’s screenplay effectively shifts to Maggie’s perspective for a prolonged sequence that finds her staying out late and partying with other infected locals. These scenes are particularly compelling for the way they infuse the scenario with credibility. Breslin, having come a long way since her giddy “Little Miss Sunshine” days, naturally fits the role of angst-riddled teen, and the movie allows her to develop into far more than just a focal point for bad vibes. Eventually, “Maggie” explores her internal journey as much as the one endured by her father.
To that end, “Maggie” features a curious blend of horror and melodrama, but ultimately falls into the latter camp unlike anything else Schwarzenegger has done before. He never entirely vanishes into the role — the filmmakers fail to explain how a muscular Austrian wound up owning a farm in the countryside — but he appears much older and rougher around the edges than usual, the contours of his wrinkled face as prevalent as the biceps.
Above all else, “Maggie” stands out as the first genuine tearjerker in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. The actor delivers a notably gentler performance unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. But there are other reasons to appreciate the delicacy of the material even when it doesn’t entirely hold together. Schwarzenegger’s performance is matched by the movie’s persistently somber tone, which often threatens to smother some genuinely compelling material. Still, Hobson successfully applies the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse toward more intimate goals.
Conceptually, the scenario has its precedents — “Zombie Honeymoon” and last year’s “Life After Beth” come to mind — but “Maggie” is more poignant and involving than either, even when the basic premise grows tedious. The midwestern cornfields provide an effective minimalist setting that keeps the focus on the bleak tragedy at hand.
With time the heavy sadness dominating each scene occasionally suffers from redundancy. Nevertheless, the story retains a haunting quality thanks to its compelling performances and a contemplative atmosphere that owes much to David Wingo’s mournful score. As both characters gradually learn to confront Maggie’s fate, it’s hard not to get drawn into the stirring nature of the material — even for viewers who tend to roll their eyes during cancer movies. The emotional beats work, which is rarely the case for grisly stories of the undead.
From the outset, both Schwarzenegger and the premise of “Maggie” are too familiar for their own good. “Maggie” notably gives both a fresh spin. The movie subtly examines whether people accustomed to a precise way of life can deal with cataclysmic change; by extension, it implies similar questions about Schwarzenegger’s career as he heads toward his seventies, and makes a solid case that more new directions await.