Maggie is a terrific and sad film about a father who finds himself helpless as his teenage daughter slowly dies. It’s a thoughtful and heart-rendering film and it’s one of the best of the year so far. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at some of the reviews.
Of course, there’s nothing new about a good film getting bad reviews. I’m actually surprised that anyone even bothers with reviewers anymore, considering just how often they get things wrong. There are any number of reasons why good films get dismissed. Some movies are genuinely ahead of their time. Some critics prefer to judge based on genre than by what they actually see on screen. Occasionally, a critic feels obligated to like or dislike a movie based on the politics or culture of the moment. The fact of the matter is that most film critics like to feel important and the easiest way to feel important is to hop onto a bandwagon with all of the other critics.
So, what’s the excuse as far as Maggie is concerned? Why does Maggie, one of the best films of the year so far, only have a rating of 51% on rotten tomatoes? In Maggie‘s case, it’s a combination of genre (Maggie is a zombie film and there’s a lot of critics who still feel guilty over liking The Walking Dead) and star. Maggie has been promoted as being an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, even though his role is essentially a supporting one. The majority of critics have been willing to admit that Schwarzenegger gives a good performance but they always have to qualify the praise. As a result, you have critics at both Hitflix and the A.V. Club writing that Schwarzenegger’s performance works because his character is designed to take advantage of Schwarzenegger’s limitations as an actor, as if all good performances aren’t, to some degree, the result of good casting. In order to make up for praising Schwarzenegger (who is not only an action star but a Republican as well, which is a combination that many reviewers — especially those who work exclusively online — will never be able to see beyond), many critics undoubtedly feel obligated to be overly critical of Maggie.
(What does that 51% mean anyway? That Maggie is 51% good?)
As for the film itself, it tells a simple story, one to which a lot of people will undoubtedly relate. As the film opens, we learn that the zombie apocalypse has already begun. The world has been hit by a virus. The infection spreads slowly, forcing the victims and their loved ones to watch as the infected are gradually transformed into mindless and cannibalistic zombies. However, the U.S. government has reacted with swift and ruthless efficiency. Martial law has been imposed. The infected are allowed to say with family up until the disease enters its final stages. At that point, they’re taken into quarantine and are euthanized. Though we never actually see a quarantine center, we hear enough about it to know that there is nothing humane about it. (Indeed, one reason why Maggie is so effective is because we know that the real-life government would probably be even less humane than the film’s government.) Society has contained the plague but it’s done so at the cost of its own humanity.
College student Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been infected. She was bitten by a zombie and, as a result, she now has a grotesque black wound on her arm. As the virus moves through her body, her eyes grow opaque. Her veins blacken. When she breaks a now dead finger, she reacts by chopping it off with a kitchen knife. As there is no cure, all Maggie can do now is wait until she is sent to quarantine.
Her father, a farmer named Wade (Schwarzenegger), brings Maggie back to his farm with him so that he can take care of her during her final days. Wade knows what quarantine is like and he has no intention of forcing his daughter to go through that. With government doctors and police officers constantly and, in some cases, forcefully demanding the he give her up, Wade protects Maggie as best he can. He sleeps with a rifle at his side, knowing that eventually he’s going to have to use it on his own daughter.
And I’m crying again. Between this review and the one I did for Terms of Endearment, my face is going to be a mascara-smeared mess.
Maggie is a low-key and thoughtful film, a meditation on life, love, family, and death. Though the film does feature Schwarzenegger fighting zombies, most of the action happens off-screen. Instead, we just see the haunting aftermath. Schwarzenegger doesn’t deliver any one liners in this film and the film deliberately plays down his action hero past. He’s still got the huge body and the muscles but, in Maggie, they’re not intimidating. Instead, they’re evidence that Wade has spent his life working the land and they actually emphasize just how helpless Wade is in the face of Maggie’s disease. Director Henry Hobson makes good use of Schwarzenegger’s heavily-lined and weather-beaten face. His sad and suspicious eyes communicate everything that we need to know. When he cries, you don’t consider that you’ve never seen him cry before. Instead, the moment captures you because the tears and the emotions behind them are real.
But really, the film ultimately belongs to Abigail Breslin. It’s appropriate that the film is named after her character because the film really is her story. Maggie is about how she deals with knowing that she’s going to die and how she searches for meaning in her final days. It’s a good and heartfelt performance, one that reminded me of Brigitte LaHaie’s poignant work in Jean Rollin’s Night of the Hunted.
So, ignore the critics.
Ignore that stupid 51% on Rotten Tomatoes.