Saturday, July 30, 2016

Arnold Shwarzenegger Day: Maggie (2015)

At this point, a full decade or so since the sub-genre re-ignited in a significant way, we have seen virtually every kind of zombie movie possible.  And on TV, The Walking Dead affords us our weekly dose of zombie apocalypse action too.

On one hand, it might be tempting to gaze at all these zombie productions and yell “overkill,” or some such thing.

I see it differently, however. 

The surfeit of zombie films -- in conjunction with the rise of indie/DIY horror -- has permitted the genre to expand in new and unexpected directions.  

If there weren’t approximately a hundred variations of the zombie film being made each and every year, would we have the creative space for perfect little cinematic grace notes like The Battery (2014), or this film, Maggie (2015)?

I suspect not.

By now, the parameters of the zombie plague are so well-known -- don’t get bitten, shoot the zombies in the head, etc. -- that some movies have chosen to innovate not by going big and epic, but by doing the opposite; by exploring the world of the walking dead on a small and intimate basis.

Directed by Henry Hobson, Maggie chooses this route. 

The film has received mixed reviews thus far, and I believe the negative reviews have more to do with audience expectations than any particular quality of the film itself. 

Some people think of zombies and they want another World War Z (2013) or some such effort: a gory war story told on a humongous scale. 

Maggie is pretty clearly not that thing.

On the contrary, it’s a sweet, unassuming film about a young girl who is going to die from the zombie plague, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), and her heart-broken, soul-broken father, Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

In true Hamlet-like fashion, Wade is paralyzed about what to do for Maggie.  He can’t bear to kill her, or rob her of a minute of her life.

But nor can he allow her to continue suffering, or become a danger to others…including his wife and other children.

Tear off Maggie’s genre elements and what you get here is the simple story of a child with a fatal disease, a child with no possible future.  Her father wants her to experience that future, but knows it is not to be.  

But if he can give her one more day, or a day and a half of that future…isn’t that a victory?

Maggie is nothing more and nothing less than the above-description suggests. It’s a gray, grim character piece that happens to be highlighted by some surprisingly-effective acting from action star, Schwarzenegger.  He doesn’t do his standard action man shtick here: a wink and a gag, coupled with his unmatchable charisma and screen presence. 

Instead, we see the character’s crushed heart, and total incapacity to resolve Maggie’s dilemma. 

As is often the case, it behooves you, going in to a film like Maggie to know what sort of film you’re watching.  This isn’t a decapitation-a-minute gore fest.  This isn’t an action film at all. Maggie is a sensitive and at times heart-wrenching drama about a family that could be yours…or mine.

On those grounds, Maggie is beautiful effort, an elegiac father-daughter love story.

“You shouldn’t have brought me back.”

In modern America, a necro-ambulist plague infects much of the populace.  Urban areas are hardest hit, but some rural areas remain largely unscathed. The U.S. government has established a protocol for dealing with those infected; those who have been bitten by the walking dead. The suffering are allowed to go home with their loved ones for a time, and then -- when “the turn” goes into full effect -- are shipped off to quarantine camps, where they will die.

Weeks after she ran away, young Maggie Vogel (Breslin) is found by her farmer father, Wade (Schwarzenegger) in a hospital ward for the infected.  She’s been bitten on the arm, and it’s only a matter of time before she will die. 

A kindly doctor informs Wade that first Maggie will lose her appetite, and then she’ll get it back…but for human flesh.  A sign of the “turn” is an increased ability to smell…meat. Worse, Maggie’s disease is progressing more rapidly than normal.  She has very little time left…

Wade takes Maggie home to the family farm, where her step-mother, Caroline (Joely Richardson) is understandably anxious about her presence.  The Vogels’ two younger children are sent away with relatives during the duration of Maggie’s care.

Over time, Wade is forced to confront his responsibility vis-à-vis his daughter.  A neighbor has kept her daughter and husband -- both infected -- at home too, but they escape and present a danger to the Vogels.  Wade is forced to kill them outright, rather than let them attack.  He is warned by a local sheriff not to allow the same thing in his house; not to keep Maggie at home so long that she is a danger to others.

Meanwhile, Maggie confronts the idea that she has no future. She goes out for an evening with friends, including a boy who is bound for quarantine, and dreads the possibility.  Soon Caroline leaves the house, and Maggie watches as Wade agonizes over his choices.

Then, Maggie’s “turn” begins. Her eyes go black, and she begins to sense those around her not as people, but as food.

The time for action is coming, but Wade can’t bring himself to do what he must…

“Think about what you did today. And what you may have to do tomorrow.”

There are very few fireworks in Maggie.  The film is not about zombies overrunning our infrastructure, or laying siege to our cities and communities.  Instead, the film adopts a very simple premise.  Early on, a physician tells Wade what to expect, and then we follow Maggie through the stages of the plague. Remembering the doctor’s words, we understand where Maggie “is” on the plague continuum.  There is no happy ending and, indeed, no expectation of one.

One of the best scenes in the film sees that physician talking frankly with Wade about his options.  This in-mourning dad can take his daughter immediately to quarantine, a kind of hell-on-Earth death-camp.  He can give her a government-made death cocktail to kill her, but she will suffer immensely because the cocktail is painful. 

Or Wade can end it quickly, with a bullet to the head, ending Maggie’s suffering once and for all.

Not one of those options is a good one, pretty plainly. And Wade spends the majority of the film waiting, attempting to decide on his course of actions.  He waits and he waits, and Maggie grows worse. 

He waits because he can’t bear for her to die.

He waits because he can’t before her to live in her condition.  

As the father, I sympathized completely with Wade’s inaction. He knows he is going to lose his beloved child, but he doesn’t want to take one minute of life from that child.  He wants to wait till the last possible moment, till the moment when her humanity is eclipsed, and he knows she must die. 

But, moment after moment, encounter after encounter, he finds that there is some of “Maggie” still left in that “turning” zombie. Every time he sees that human quality, he -- again -- can’t act.  As viewers, we begin to doubt, frankly, that he is capable of doing what everyone tells him he must do.

I don’t know, honestly, that I could do any better, in the same situation.

My wife tells me she would choose option three for our son -- get it over with quickly and painlessly -- and then turn the gun on herself rather than live with the heart-break. Her reasoning is that it is wrong to let someone we love suffer.  I hear and understand that rationale, and perhaps I’m a coward, or simply weak.  But I don’t think I could pull the trigger on my son until I knew, 100% that there was no other option; that my child was really and truly lost. 

And even then, I don’t know if I could do it.

Maggie is the kind of film that makes you consider such questions. What would you do if your child contracted a plague, and was a danger to others?

On a more mundane level, what would you do if your child contracted, simply, a terminal illness? 

How would you talk to that child about the elephant in the room: the idea that he or she simply has run out of future? The parent-child bond is one about learning and preparing, conveying knowledge to the young.  Suddenly, that contract is broken, because the child will never grow up, never carry the responsibility to be an adult, and go through life. What’s left to talk about? To connect over?

We see in one scene, as Wade focuses on the past, and the way he and Maggie’s mother met.  Shared history is the only thing left when the future is gone.

Other characters in the film, including Caroline, periodically warn Wade that Maggie isn’t herself anymore.  And even Maggie coaches her Dad on what he must do. 

“You have to do it,” she tells him.

Yet still, Wade can’t bring himself to act.  Perhaps there is a part of him that would rather die with Maggie than live without her.  Again -- and as I think my wife was trying to express in her own way -- I sympathize with that instinct.

Overall, I appreciate how sensitively and intelligently (but not cloyingly…) the movie explores its themes. In particular, it seemed to recognize a key fact about human nature.

You are always certain how strong you are...until it is your loved ones who are in pain.  And then certainty flies out the window.  Maggie captures that notion splendidly.

Maggie presents a haunting scenario to think about, and Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a remarkable performance here.  He prowls the film with a hang-dog expression, and an air of defeat.  I remember being none-too-impressed with his performance as a grieving husband and Dad in End of Days (1999).  I didn’t feel he had the depth, there, to nail that fallen character.  But here, he absolutely nails the essence of his character, Wade.  He carries an invisible weight on his shoulders, and there’s a sweet gentleness to his interactions with Maggie.  Wade is never disgusted, horrified or scared by her. But he is a wreck, facing what for him is the end of his universe, the death of his child.  I have never seen Schwarzenegger give such an internal performance before, and his work here is accomplished and award-worthy.

Maggie’s denouement, finds an intriguing answer for Wade’s existential dilemma.  I don’t want to give it away, but it stems from Maggie’s strength, and --as it should -- from her love for her father.  Maggie’s final act in this life is one that takes her father’s experience fully into account, and goes from there.

What finally emerges then, is a portrait of a loving family facing a horrible situation.  The love that Wade and Maggie share for one another is the thing that makes the pain so difficult to contend with, but in the final analysis it is also the quality that gives both individuals the strength to go on and do what they must.

In terms of its imagery, Maggie exists in a kind of de-saturated world of gray, where all joy and hope has been chemically extracted from the visuals.  In a world without a future, how can the sky, the landscape, or the people be anything but gray?  The film’s visuals are quite lovely at times, though for some stretches it looks like the Vogel’s live on Matthew McConaughey’s farm from Interstellar (2014)

Maggie is a sad -- nay grim -- film.  Yet it is one I wholeheartedly recommend. You’ve seen zombies of all types before – fast and slow, brain-eating or not -- but Maggie’s gift to us is worth noting.  The film takes the world of the zombie apocalypse and makes it feel personal and close in a way that few genre films have managed.

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