It is possible that Maggie may be the best misfire of the year. It’s a thriller that doesn’t ultimately work, but you almost feel the need to applaud the effort. Odd to say, but that’s kind of refreshing. In a year that is offering us a vast minefield of movies in which no one even tried – Taken 3, Paul Blart 2, Unfriended, The Longest Ride – here is a genre film that works hard to give us something new. Ultimately, it doesn’t work, but you sense that there was a great effort to make something special.
Maggie is a zombie movie (I know, bear with me) that isn’t about stumbling corpses and trigger-happy military men, but is about something more personal. It yearns to be a contemplation on what would happen to a family during a world-sapping plague if one of their own was infected with something that they all knew would slowly, and inexorably rob her of that person of their very soul to the point that they had to consider doing the unthinkable.
The movie takes place in the midst of a worldwide plague that is infecting millions of people, not in an instant but through an agonizing six week gestation period in which the infected are forced to watch themselves rot from the inside. Our focus falls on Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin) a young teenager who went into the city, got herself bitten, and now finds herself on a one-way trek to Z-land. She is retrieved from this nightmare by her father Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who refuses to send his daughter into the government-mandated quarantine. He brings her back home to the family farm so that he and Maggie’s stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson) can care for her themselves.
Yes, that’s right, her father is played by Schwarzenegger, though it is not what you expect. In a movie of so many poor decisions, Arnold underplays his role and gives you the idea that he is really a better actor then we might have thought possible. This may be the best performance of his career. Arnold’s enormous success was built – very wisely, I might add – on parodying his unusual physique and his thick accent, but here he’s offering us something new. He’s playing a father who is slowly losing his daughter mind, body and soul, but doesn’t go over the top with melodrama despite being forced to chew on some hammy dialogue (“I pro-meesed you mudda I would always protect you.”)
Points also go to Abigail Breslin whose Maggie is forced to endure the deterioration of her own flesh while struggling to maintain what bits of withering humanity remain upstairs. As her flesh goes grey and her eyes go milky white, the virus makes it harder and harder for her to keep from giving in to the ravages of the virus. It’s a good physical performance.
This is not an action movie, it’s a character movie. There are long, slow passages that are meant to allow us to feel the family’s slow trek to the inevitable. The movie is shot is gray tones that feel like storm clouds are eternally overhead. This is a gorgeous movie to look at.
And yet again, Maggie is a misfire. The premise of the zombie infection is just plain silly – the movie would have been just as effective if Maggie were infected with an untreatable strain of an existing disease. There are very good ideas here and a noble effort here by first-time director Henry Hobson to make a great film about a family and the tragedy that slowly creeps into their lives. With just a twist in the story here and a tweak in the dialogue there, this could have been a great movie. Instead, it’s a seriously flawed movie with a few great things holding it together.