95 min., rated PG-13.
With Arnold Schwarzenegger headlining a movie with zombies, one expects a gleefully bloody, over-the-top actioner where he's cracking one-liners and terminating the walking dead with an axe or his bare hands. Genre junkies should know upfront that "Maggie" is not that movie. In fact, it more closely resembles the spare pacing and elegiac tone of the first season of "The Walking Dead" where it's more about the human characters than the threat of the shambling undead. It doesn't so much apply a fresh coat of paint to the zombie genre as much as it mashes up a mournful terminal-illness family drama against a zombie apocalypse as window dressing. So much of it is so drearily grim, but as along as the viewer adjusts his or her expectations accordingly, "Maggie" still works surprisingly well for what it wants to do within its small scope.
In the midst of the "necroambulist virus," turning the infected into zombies within a few weeks' time, Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes looking for Maggie (Abigail Breslin), his 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage. After two weeks of his search, the father finds his baby girl in the hospital and discovers she has "turned." Hiding behind big sunglasses to cover her dead white eyes, Maggie is taken back to Wade and his wife Caroline's (Joely Richardson) farm and welcomed by her young stepbrother (Aiden Flowers) and stepsister (Carsen Flowers). Once Maggie begins to slowly turn and deteriorate, Wade must make his final decision, whether that's sending her to quarantine to be euthanized or the hardest, which in the long run might be the best.
Movie title sequence designer Henry Hobson makes his directorial debut here, along with working from first-timer John Scott 3's script, and for being so green, they have concocted something different and more human. Somber as hell but dramatically involving, "Maggie" drops us right into a fatalistic scenario and takes a micro approach. Little is learned about the epidemic, barring scientists suggesting that an elevated sense of smell can be a tell-tale sign of "the turn," but this isn't really about the global or local Midwestern situation. The PG-13 rating luckily doesn't always hold back on certain sequences that need to be horrific for the proper impact, such as Maggie chopping off her broken, decaying finger with the same kitchen knife her stepmother uses to chop tomatoes for dinner or the time where she wakes up at night with a surprise wriggling from her infected arm.
No one has much time to be a Little Miss (or Mister) Sunshine, not even the grown-up Abigail Breslin herself, under such downbeat circumstances. Despite the limitations of characterization, the performances are the film's biggest assets. When's the last time an Arnold Schwarzenegger performance was considered "subtle" and "moving"? So subdued and quietly pained one almost cannot believe it's the same '80s action star who's been chomping on cigars and trying to reclaim his glory in those damn "Expendables" movies, he actually gives a performance of depth as Wade. It might sound like a backhanded compliment, but Schwarzenegger (also a producer) is actually more effective when he says little and conveys pain with just his weary, albeit still-chiseled, face. In the ill-fated title role, Abigail Breslin is emotionally sound and makes her gradual arc more relatable than over-the-top, and there is a poignancy to her fleeting scenes with infected, veiny-necked boyfriend Trent (Bryce Romero). An excellent Joely Richardson also does a lot with a little as Wade's second wife Caroline, showing that she cares for her stepdaughter, even if Maggie is not herself anymore, but solid in her decisions.
The look of the film is hauntingly moody and cold with every frame nearly desaturated, but director Henry Hobson takes a humanistic approach to the story in a visual sense with intimate handheld camerawork and an overall sense of melancholy. At its core, "Maggie" is about a father struggling with denial and the final choice he will have to make for his own daughter. There's only one resolution to the film, and the way the film goes out is not a cop-out. It's satisfying in the only way a film of this type could be. Almost too truncated at 95 minutes, "Maggie" doesn't dig as deeply as it probably could have, but with what it does right, the film is true in its emotions of inevitable morality and loss of a dear loved one. If it's not an unqualified success, it's still a compelling first try from a debuting filmmaker who somehow pulls Arnold Schwarzenegger's best dramatic work out of him.