Review: Schwarzenegger tries to stretch in slow-burn zombie film ‘Maggie’

For someone who has been making films as long as he has, there is a surprisingly short list of films where I would argue that Arnold Schwarzenegger gives genuinely good performances.

As a movie star, he doesn't really have to give good performances. That's one of the things that makes being a movie star so weird. There are legitimate legendary movie stars who have never given what I would call a good performance, but who do their jobs perfectly well. Being a movie star is far more about having a particular personality that you bring to every role. Most of the most famous Schwarzenegger films, he's just playing variations on himself. Even though I adore films like “Conan The Barbarian” and the first two “Terminator” films, I think his work in them is good because the directors of those films knew exactly what they wanted out of Schwarzenegger, and they practically build the films around him.

Since his comeback after serving as the governor of California, I've liked the choices Schwarzenegger's been making. Sure, “Escape Plan” is incredibly silly, but I think both “Sabotage” and “The Last Ride” are pretty solid action films, and they've both made smart use of the new variable in Schwarzenegger's bag of tricks, his age. Now, with “Maggie,” we finally have a real performance to judge as Arnold is stripped of pretty much everything he's ever been able to rely on in his work. The result is a close-up study of his limitations as an actor, and a genuinely sad piece of work that he handles well.

As a film, “Maggie” feels slight. Set after the rise of the “necro-ambulist” virus, the film tells the story of Wade, a father (Schwarzenegger) who finds his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) after she has run away. Unfortunately, at some point, she was attacked and bitten by someone with the virus, so by the time he finds her, it's too late. She's been infected, and doctors inform Wade that she will turn at some point in the next few weeks, and when that happens, his options are limited. He can turn her in to the government quarantine, he can give her the same “cocktail” drug they administer in the quarantine, or he can find a way to kill her quick. There is no good option, and from the beginning of the film, it's just a slow sad countdown to that moment where Maggie isn't Maggie anymore.

The script, written by the oddly named John Scott 3, does its best to offer up a human view of what life would be like in an age of zombies. This isn't the apocalypse. Instead, it's just a long sad glimpse at a father who has an impossible choice ahead of him, and the struggle to make peace with that decision. Much of the film is carried by the close-ups from director Henry Hobson, making his jump to directing after a long career as a guy who designed main title sequences. The film feels very tiny, and intentionally so. This isn't a horror film at all, which is an odd thing to say when you're talking about a movie with zombies in it.

Breslin does solid work as a girl who has to grapple with the idea that she will not be able to enjoy the joys of adulthood, and who knows full well what her suffering is going to do to her father. Joely Richardson is fine as Wade's second wife Caroline, but she's out of the movie before she's got much to do. Ultimately, this is largely a two-person movie. There are some cops who check in, some local kids who take Maggie out for her final night as a teenager, and another couple of local undead, but it all comes back to Wade and Maggie in the end. Breslin has the most work to do here, the heaviest lifting, and she finds several grace notes in the role, particularly on a last outing with her friends.

I honestly wish I liked the film more, but at this point, we've seen a whole lot of zombie movies, and while this one tries to find a new way into the idea, it doesn't do anything particularly new. There's one scene where, after Wade kills two zombies he encounters in the woods, he is forced to deal with a surviving family member face to face and watch her grieve over them. It's a moment we never see in the horror movie version of this story. Little by little, the film keeps tightening its focus until it is simply Wade, alone in the house with his daughter, waiting for her to become something he no longer recognizes. If the entire function of the film is to create a framework in which we see Schwarzenegger cry, then, sure, mission accomplished. But “Maggie” eventually disappoints. Even back at the beginning of  the modern version of this genre, George Romero made movies that were positively laden with subtext. A film like this almost feels like the filmmakers believe they are too “good” to make a real horror film, and as a result, “Maggie” feels toothless, no matter how pronounced its taste for flesh.

“Maggie” opens this Friday in limited release.