Methodical Turnover At Heart of Zombie-Drama 'Maggie'

Directed by: Henry Hobson; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: B-

Hopefully, the time for cheekiness about Arnold Schwarzenegger being in a zombie movie that isn't much like a traditional zombie movie should be coming to a close sometime soon. That frame-of-mind almost works like an easy distraction from whatever issues one might have with Maggie, which is built on a premise strong enough to land on the blacklist of best unproduced screenplays four years prior. After all, if first-time director Henry Hobson's film turns out to be lackluster, then at least you got the chance to see the badass responsible for Dutch, Douglas Quaid, and The Governator give a small and unique indie the old college try, right? Surprisingly, neither the familiar concept nor the performances pose any threats to this artfully novel synthesis of apocalyptic horror and parental crisis. Instead, its tonal heaviness -- both sentimental and tragic -- and narrative longevity without energetic beats are what keep it quarantined from the potential magnitude of its character drama.

In a way, despite being just a farmer in a secluded area of the American midwest, Wade Vogel still turns out to be a heroic role for Schwarzenegger. The disappearance of his daughter -- accompanied by a voice message telling him not to look for her -- leads Wade to search the surrounding area for several weeks, finally landing on her location in a hospital. There, he learns that Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been diagnosed with the rampant, society-crippling epidemic that has plagued the country, one that turns people into mindless cannibals after a grueling transformation. Options are limited to giving over the severely infected to quarantine zones, or to take care of the situation independently. With a little help from someone he knows in the medical profession, Wade chooses the latter, bringing Maggie back to his country home with the intent of spending as much time with her as possible before it happens ... and ensuring that nobody, not even the authorities, prevents that from happening.

The process of turning into a zombie in the world of Maggie takes longer than it does in most other horror settings, sharing more in common with a terminal illness than those other quick biological mutations designed to create packs of monsters for the heroes to avoid (and shoot in the head). The script from first-time writer John Scott III intelligently explores that difference for the sake of complicated personal conflicts and tough decisions, though it overestimates the staying power of Maggie's slow progression and the scenario's confined scope. The situation extends to a degree where it feels like a low-energy, high-emotion subplot from The Walking Dead has been stretched and spread into a primary two-episode story, bloating the gloomy drama within picturesque, filtered camerawork of the bucolic setting. With that, though, the focus also shifts to the moral dilemma in Wade Vogel's hands as he watches his daughter gradually slip away, aiding the lethargic pace by pulling no punches in emphasizing the certainty of it all.

There's little denying the bleak, heartbreaking intentions coursing through Maggie's veins, especially once the young woman starts coming to grips with her mortality, the tragedy she's previously weathered and the things she'll never get to fully experience. While the brawny Terminator star has justly received attention for his tempered attitude here, the bulk of the film's substance relies on Abigail Breslin's capacity to approach the zombie infection like an incurable and fatal disease. Her character copes with a lot, both physically and emotionally, and Breslin's responses to the worsening prognosis and disappearing humanity heighten the grim inevitability of the premise. Melancholy musings about Maggie's deceased biological mother and budding romance halted by the pandemic are quietly moving, her character's despondency maturely handled even when we'd expect anger to get the best of her. Focusing on her character tends to be a two-edged sword, though, limiting any examination of the other characters -- especially her step-mother -- to one-note responses to her worsening condition.

Maggie's physical changes throughout the film are compellingly subtle at first, enough to be observable amid the drama -- clouding eyes, darkening of veins, eroding skin -- without offsetting any emotional intentions. The drawn-out tempo of the story actually works to her transformation's favor, elaborating on each incremental stage for a comprehensive depiction of both her descent and of Wade's tormented resolve, taking familiar zombie-movie tropes and genuinely expanding on them. Hobson's direction only reaches true heights when she crosses a threshold in her symptoms, the point where she starts to lose what makes her human as Wade's moment of decision approaches. There are no bad guys here or objectively correct pathways taken, and Schwarzenegger's burly emotive poise really embraces the enormity of the situation through the character's safeguarding of his daughter until the time comes. To the end, he convincingly portrays a father who'll fight to ensure that her mortality lies in their hands, earning the film's somber but comparatively rewarding moment where Maggie's preference trumps all.

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