Were Brad Pitt of World War Z to meet Brad Pitt of A Tree of Life, you could have Maggie. Almost. For, while Terence Malik hangs heavy over this film, Hobson — who was a part of Malik’s A Tree of Life — jettisons the symbolism long enough to give us a warm, working family strained by a zombie scare.
That’s thanks to credible performances by both Breslin (the grown-up Little Miss Sunshine) as the infected daughter progressing towards decay, and particularly Schwarzenegger as the sturdy, grieving father, who gives Clint Eastwood a run for his money as the scraggly loner guarding his territory. Hobson even gives Joely Richardson a chance to be a person beyond being the stepmother.
Schwarzenegger’s Wade finds Breslin’s Maggie in a hospital after she has run away from home, presumably after being infected by a zombie bite. The doctor is a friend and so Maggie is released into Wade’s custody, with the instruction that she be brought back into quarantine should she get worse.
From that point on, Hobson’s film makes a heartwarming departure from films that reduce living people to lifeless zombies without a step in between. The debutant director sets up Maggie’s return, her interaction with her smaller siblings, her relationship with her nervous stepmother Caroline, and particularly Wade with tension, gloom and pervading grief and fear. Every meal is a moment of dread, as one of the signs Maggie may be turning worse is her losing her appetite, and every scene of her close up against another person is fraught with the prospect of her attacking them. They know it, she knows it, and she knows they know it.
The house, lonely in the middle of fields burnt to kill the infection leading to “necroambulism”, is full of dark corners with creaky wooden floors and seldom any electricity connection. It’s a hard place, one can see, made easier by the simple fact of people choosing to live there.