Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatches but a handful of zombies over the course of Maggie. This is a decent amount for a regular person, to be sure, but Schwarzenegger has only ever been goaded into playing a regular guy for purposes of comedy and, more recently, making a few jokes about his advancing age before he nonetheless kills a fuckton of people. There have been serious, tortured, and/or gloomy Schwarzenegger characters before, but Maggie is, top to bottom, probably the most somber movie he’s ever starred in, and one of his most human performances.
He plays Wade, a father in the midwest whose daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has fallen victim to an outbreak of a zombie virus. Interestingly, the movie treats the virus as more of a disaster than an apocalypse: it appears to be relatively under control, so long as victims are rounded up and eventually quarantined, the results of which are initially murky but eventually shown to be less than zombie-progressive.
Wade has an (improbable) in with a doctor who (improbably) grants him custody of his daughter rather than insisting on immediate quarantine. So they return to their quiet homestead with Wade’s second wife (Maggie’s mother is dead) and play the waiting-to-become-a-zombie game. Henry Hobson’s film focuses on that slow, agonizing transformation from human to zombie, a novelty that carries the movie at least part of the way that its thinly developed relationships cannot. Wade’s devotion to Maggie is understandable and heartfelt but not, it must be said, all that interesting; Hobson overrelies on moody close-ups to make his emotional points, possibly because the screenplay shows little knack for dialogue—at one point, Maggie’s much-younger sibling practically hits her with a monologue. At its occasional best, Maggie, with its dusty tones of gray and brown, reimagines the zombie movie as a lyrical drama. Schwarzenegger fits into those plans surprisingly well, even if the movie itself doesn’t always follow through.
Emelie, meanwhile, spends its best moments juicing its premise for maximum unease. That’s not to say that it’s any icy genre exercise; the family of five at its center is an unusually well-observed, well-written, and well-performed unit, particularly the three child actors, who are so eerily natural that they hardly seem to be acting. The three kids are left with a babysitter (Sarah Bolger) who, the movie lets us know immediately with a shot of the proper babysitter being pulled into a car screaming, is not who she says she is. Much of the movie works this way, conveying crucial information silently as it introduces characters, offering just enough to pull the movie along and prompt teasing questions. Why does this young woman want to pretend to be a teenage babysitter? Is she flirting with the oldest kid, an eleven-year-old? How will he figure out something is wrong? For an amount of time I imagine Hitchcock might have found amusing, the movie is able to pose these questions with the camera, not by prompting the characters.
The eventual answers to these questions come a little easily and feel a little pat, even for an 80-minute genre exercise—the first half of the movie is so effective that much of the second feels like cheap horror grafted onto a smarter thriller. Moreover, the movie loses its way with data management, haphazardly arranging information about which kids are where, who’s in communication with who, and even the geography of a simple car crash. But the first 40 to 50 minutes of Emelie are so skillful, with such a quietly menacing performance from former kid actor Bolger, that it’s almost worth seeing anyway.
The Driftless Area is a thriller of sorts, too, although it cuts its rural noir with oddball comedy in a way that sounds like a screenwriter trying to stay faithful to a novelist’s very peculiar voice. Anton Yelchin plays a young man who returns to his hometown and falls in love with a mysterious woman (Zooey Deschanel) while also running afoul of a criminal (John Hawkes) who may have wronged Deschanel and is certainly looking for a big bag of money. The writing leans on characters—near strangers, mind—asking each other disconnected dream-logic questions, rarely any writer’s strong suit. Sample exchange: “Is that how it works?” “In stories.” “This is a story.” The deadpan line-readings can sound indifferent, but a few of them are pretty funny (“Rebecca’s breaking up with you—she wanted you to be the first to know”) and John Hawkes, as the aggressive though not always efficient criminal, steers them away from cute deadpan entirely, toward crime comedy with a little grit. The rest of the crack supporting cast—Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza, and Ciaran Hinds—helps, too. In the end, the loopiness kinda-sorta works, or at least feels less self-consciously random; of these three thrillers, it’s the only one that ends a bit better than it begins. Still, it’s not for everyone: I think this had more press-screening walkouts than anything else I’ve seen at Tribeca.
Emelie screens again at Tribeca on Friday night; Maggie and The Driftless Area screen again on Saturday. Maggie will open theatrically beginning May 8 in NYC.