The pitch for Maggie, at its most basic, sounds like a very different film. ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie’ conjures up images of a film along the lines of End Of Days, in which Arnie bellowed that the Prince Of Darkness was “a fucking choirboy compared to me!”
Fans of the Austrian oak looking for that kind of thing should adjust their expectations. Maggie is an affecting slow burn that’s called Maggie for a reason; it’s all about her.
Farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) gets word that his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been infected by the illness that’s spreading throughout the States. When he goes to collect her, he’s told that he’s got about a week to spend with her before the sickness will progress to the point that quarantine becomes necessary.
Once you go into quarantine, you don’t come back. As Wade grapples with what to do with his daughter, Maggie struggles to come to terms with what’s happening to her.
By treating the zombie virus as a terminal illness rather than a device for jump scares, Henry Hobson’s directorial debut finds emotional resonance, as well as the creeping sense of dread, that we’ve got used to not expecting from our living dead.
After the first half hour or so, the film switches its focus from Wade to Maggie, as the evidence of her body’s changes is all too obvious. The black bite wound on her arm is never going to heal, and the rot is spreading.
Breslin has been pretty visible on the genre scene recently, but this feels like the first role in a while to really make the most of her talents. She channels the anger and frustration of the character while nailing the more dangerous changes.
That danger is what keeps Maggie from becoming mawkish. As much as Wade doesn’t want to admit it, he’s living with a ticking time bomb that will have to be addressed. His wife (and Maggie’s stepmother) Caroline (Joely Richardson) puts on a brave face, but is clearly frightened.
The police regularly stop by to check in and remind Wade of his duties as a citizen, and even Maggie’s friends are unable to stop themselves discussing the gruesome reality of the epidemic. John Scott 3’s script does a very good job of bringing humanity to the undead, and the rare instances of Wade being forced into action are grim rather than thrilling.
Wade’s stoic determination to hold onto his daughter for as long as possible fits Schwarzenegger well. The character seems to have been written in the Clint Eastwood western vein; grizzled, unbending, but quietly warm, and Hobson directs his star to what’s arguably his strongest performance.
He doesn’t always sell the dialogue, but those are the rare moments in which the Governator’s persona slips through. It’s a casting choice that could have derailed the film, sending sensitivity and relatability out of the window. Instead, it’s part of Maggie’s success story.
There are a few stumbles on the way to Wade’s final decision. Hobson and Scott hit some notes a little too hard, and a sequence with Maggie hanging out with her friends doesn’t work as well as it should. The world the film creates is intriguing enough for us to want to know more about exactly how society is limping along, but the focus is sensibly kept on the father and daughter.
There are times when Maggie should cut a little deeper or be a little bleaker, but this is an impressive, understated and moving take on the zombie-movie sub-genre.