'Maggie': Fighting the Dying of the Light

Cultural fatigue looms over every frame of Maggie, the new release from director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3, setting up a seemingly monumental obstacle for the newbie feature filmmaking team to overcome.

Cultural fatigue looms over every frame of Maggie, the new release from director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3, setting up a seemingly monumental obstacle for the newbie feature filmmaking team to overcome. How will they convince audiences to settle in for a movie that introduces the tired tropes of zombies and aging action heroes as if the combination is brand new and somehow still able to rock our socks off?

I caught myself, early on, ticking through the list of big-screen zombie narratives — without going all the way back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (or any of its sequels, reboots or knockoffs) — trying to identify my favorites, especially those with some tangential connection to the slow-burning narrative unfolding in Maggie. Wandering through the wasteland of 28 Days Later, Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead — go figure, I couldn’t help detouring down the more comedic byways — what struck me was how much Maggie and its landscape felt much more like a post-Purge/The Road nightmare, filled with the creeping dread of what happens to the living who are desperate to stay one step ahead of the walking dead. There is palpable fear, a dark shadow that hangs over every single frame, but we rarely see actual zombies. Instead, the filmmakers offer up the inevitability of “becoming” that is captured in the slowly decaying faces and bodies of those who have been bitten and the anguish of loved ones fighting to hang on to and care for their infected friends and family members.

And all of a sudden, it becomes clear that Hobson and Scott were not necessarily interested in retelling the same old undead story, because the analogy here is linked to caring for someone afflicted with, say, Alzheimer’s or other degenerative disorders. Neurological decay, in either case, is about the loss of memory and ultimately identity (personhood). The dilemma — to provide home care or turn the sick over to institutionalized care — is a no-win scenario, compounded here by the fact that zombie-induced decay strikes any and all ages and forces harsh choices.

Midwestern father Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger) receives word that his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been picked up, tested and found to be infected. After initial treatment, she is released into his care, but he (and we) are repeatedly reminded that at some point (sooner rather than later), he will have to decide to either turn her over to a containment unit for quarantine or deal with her himself. Along the way, we witness Wade grimly dispatch a few members of his community, and we appreciate the toll it takes on him.

Casting Schwarzenegger as Wade, though, triggers a second wave of weariness for moviegoers. We see the aging action hero — the man was (and later on will be) The Terminator — and must battle images of not only The Governator, but also a host of other members of the aged brigade (Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford joined by the likes of Denzel Washington and the current leader of the new old-school Liam Neeson). They are no longer quip-happy good guys taking on impossible odds; now, they are fathers and experienced protectors with certain lethal skills. 

But again, Hobson and Scott wisely sidestep these associations and, intriguingly, place a different and far heavier load on the broad shoulders of Schwarzenegger, asking him to play a man, an everyday hero faced with the kind of choice no hero ever wants to encounter: Care for your child, be there for her in her hour of need, but know that, at some point, you will have to end her life in order to save her (soul).

And to his credit, Schwarzenegger bears the burden with astonishing grace and conviction. I couldn’t escape the comparisons to Clint Eastwood — the flinty stare and the weathered etchings that demarcate the miles and miles of battles fought onscreen — but I enjoyed Schwarzenegger’s performance here because I saw, possibly for the first time, a man more readily able to embrace his softer side. I could see Schwarzenegger as a father with that rich backstory of being there to protect his daughter, offering love and warmth that bubbled up in the exchanges with her now, tingeing his performance with sadness.

Maggie, despite its name, is not about a daughter’s slide into the dark oblivion of neurological decay. The film documents the sorrow and pain of the living who must continue on, and it showcases an actor in Schwarzenegger who is decidedly not ready to slip slowly from the frame. He becomes the real hero he’s been pretending to be all this time. (Opens Friday) (PG-13) Grade: A

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