The Humbling of an Icon: On Maggie and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Paternalistic, Post-Political Career

One of the most interesting moments in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s long, explosive career occurs during the first third of the zombie movie Maggie, which was released a couple of months ago and was quickly forgotten about. In the scene, Arnold’s character Wade (a farmer and father to the film’s titular character) has traveled to a neighboring homestead, whose inhabitants have recently had their lives ruined by the zombie outbreak. He enters the farmhouse and stumbles across a room, whose walls are adorned with dozens of expressions of love scratched into the wood by his deceased neighbors.

I love my daughter. I love my family. These are some of the messages that Wade looks at hopelessly as he stands in the small, claustrophobic room. Then, something remarkable happens: Arnold cries. However, what’s truly startling here is the way in which he cries. There is no blubbering involved; in fact, the moment amounts to little more than misty eyes. The desired impact though is obvious. First-time director Henry Hobson focuses on the actor’s face in an extreme closeup. While Schwarzenegger still looks phenomenal at 67, his face is rugged and lined. There is a cragginess to him, a striking world-weariness. The moment before the tears (or tear in this case) begin to fall is also notable. Arnold’s head tilts downward, appearing almost as if he is bowing to the simple albeit excruciating pain of human loss.

Of course, the irony here is obvious. Arnold has largely made his millions through the process of doling out such loss on-screen. But his post-political career has repeatedly sought to address this. There is a pining for reconciliation marking this period, paired with an intuitive self-awareness regarding the limitations his characters face, and how these limitations relate to his now fading star-persona. There are some exceptions to this trend, particularly 2013’s Escape Plan, which offered the type of joyfully vacuous thrills that Arnold (and costar Sylvester Stallone) reveled in throughout the 80s and 90s.

For the most part though, Arnold’s work since 2012 (The Last Stand, Sabotage and particularly in Maggie) functions as a humbling overture, one diametrically opposed to his famous pantheon of unstoppable, wisecracking killing machines. Many have derided these films, but I would argue that they represent some of Arnold’s most audacious and interesting work, tackling not only his violent on-screen history but also positioning him (fascinatingly) as a parental figure.

I. “My Honor is Not for Sale” – Arnold’s Last Stand as the Hero

The Arnold we meet in 2013’s The Last Stand is a different beast from the one who left us in 2003. After completing a mediocre entry to the Terminator franchise (Jonathan Mostow’s Rise of the Machines), the superstar hung up his guns and leather jacket and entered political life. As the first leading role he had taken on in over ten years, The Last Stand was a clear test of the durability of Arnold’s overall star power. How would he hold up in a film culture that had changed dramatically since his departure?

As it turned out, he would hold up quite well. A marvelously entertaining film, The Last Stand is a perfect comeback vehicle for the aging star. Funny, tightly-paced, and featuring strong action scenes from Jee-woon Kim, The Last Stand harnesses Arnold’s still potent charisma and surrounds him with a marvelously effective supporting cast.

Like Arnold’s best work, the film also doesn’t take itself that seriously. There are more than a few winks at the audience, many of which revolving around Arnold’s character (Sheriff Ray Owens) and his advanced age. Additionally, the film indulges Arnold’s larger than life persona by providing his character with several one-liners, most notably when he says to Peter Stormare “I’m the sheriff!” before blowing him to kingdom come.

Despite The Last Stand’s relatively flippant, jovial attitude, the type of performance Arnold gives is different from earlier incarnations. There is an aged quality to him, not just in his physicality but also in the relationships he maintains with his deputies. One deputy in particular, whose name is Jerry (played by Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford), helps the audience dive into the backstory of Ray Owens.

Becoming the sheriff of the tiny town of Sommerton Junction, AZ, Ray was a narcotics officer in the LAPD, who left the force after one particular operation went bad. There is a moment in the film where Jerry confronts Ray about his past and then attempts to leverage it into getting a job with the big city’s police force. Ray’s response suggests his experience with a lifetime of violence. He cautions Gilford’s character against pursuing big city cop life, and he attempts to demystify it as much as he can.

In watching Arnold perform this scene, the demarcation between player and part almost ceases to exist. “When I was your age, all I wanted to do was move to Los Angeles. I wanted to be part of the action. But now, thinking back, I feel differently,” Ray says to Jerry, striking a thoughtful cord. Such sentiments illustrate a deepening in consciousness, a progression in time. It suggests, quite clearly, that Arnold and Ray have an acute awareness that they are in a different point in their lives; not to mention how they feel obligated to address their pasts and offer advice to those seeking to follow the same road.

Scenes like these evoke Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which attempted to demystify the western. While The Last Stand temporally flirts with this, it is closer to Unforgiven in how it shows its central strongman character as being incapable of leaving violence behind.

Like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven, Arnold’s Ray possesses a poised exterior. He exudes a reticence to reenter any sort of violent fray, and his actions appear defined by a moral gravity. This is suggested not only in the scene where he attempts to talk Jerry out of moving to the big city, but also later on when Gilford’s character is fatally shot during an ill-fated run-in with a gang of militarized thugs led by Stormare’s Burrell. As Ray attempts to speed his wounded young deputy to the hospital, director Jee woon-Kim repeatedly flashes to his star’s face, which is marked by an emotional anguish and a disbelief in the senselessness of it all.

And yet, almost directly following this death Ray makes the decision that he and a loyal band of followers are going to stop Gabriel Cortez (Rodrigo Santoro), an escaped drug cartel who is speeding towards their border town and for which Burrell and company are working. In doing this, Ray and the movie that surrounds him, emulates the contradictory nature of Unforgiven. The story espouses a moral gravity in its depictions of violence, yet still ends the proceedings in a bloody orgy of carnage.

But while Unforgiven positions William Munny as a man of dubious character (particularly towards the film’s end), Arnold’s Ray is positioned as the inverse, more Gary Cooper from High Noon than Eastwood from Unforgiven. Both William Munny and Ray Owens are incapable of staying away from violence, yet Arnold’s character is still irrefutably positioned as the hero of the tale, and is characterized as being almost beyond critique or reproach. “My honor is not for sale,” he says, after Cortez offers him the comically large sum of $20 million dollars to cross the Mexican border and escape the Feds. The film doesn’t challenge this. Viewers however must ask themselves though what the honor of a man is worth when he is willing to put his team, his town, and himself at risk, all for the arbitrary purpose of putting one drug kingpin behind bars. This is a question that The Last Stand has no answer for, and is only addressed in Arnold’s next starring role in Sabotage.

II. “I’m Not Like You” – Sabotage and Arnold’s Dive Into the Dark Side

The Last Stand was a movie that followed a well-worn path, a fact that isn’t really surprising. As the comeback film of Arnold Schwarzenegger it probably was always destined to be this way. But while the film does reposition Arnold as a hero of considerable charismatic worth, it simultaneously introduced two novel features. One of these has already been discussed: The Last Stand centers on a more contemplative Arnold, who knows the costs attached to a violent life. Now, for some this may seem inconsequential, and a transformation hardly worth harping about, but it can’t really be overstated how extreme this transformation is, especially if one examines the gleeful, almost lip-smacking joy attached to Arnold’s on-screen killing throughout his 1980s heyday.

The other novel feature is Arnold’s status as a paternal figure in action cinema. While this isn’t discussed explicitly in The Last Stand, a paternal aura seems to encircle his relationships with the film’s younger characters. Both of these themes are far more predominant in Arnold’s follow-up film, David Ayer’s Sabotage (2014), which tells the story of Arnold’s Breacher, a wizened leader of an elite DEA unit who learns he may not be able to trust anyone after a drug bust goes wrong.

Sabotage was almost universally panned by critics at the time of its release, with the “criticisms” repeatedly zeroing in on the film’s brutal violence and unlikable characters. Without question these are valid points – but only in a certain sense. The team members that Arnold leads in the film are undoubtedly loathsome. Trashy, immature, violent and probably insane, this gang is constituted by the worst types of people.

What the critics failed to realize is that the film only works with these attributes in place, specifically the material that ruminates on the nature of Arnold’s prototypical cinematic character and how this character would actually affect those who follow in his wake. Through the pairing of Arnold’s Breacher with his younger team of miscreants (including Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard and Joe Manganiello), we see a more realistic portrait of Arnold as father figure, not to mention the brutal consequences that this paternal influence would likely bring.

The viewer first observes this influence during the film’s first action scene, where Breacher and his team raid an opulent drug house. The team is shown obediently responding to Breacher as a paternal figure and how they are a close-knit, almost familial unit. Ayer also evokes their clear efficacy as a militarized force, showing them cutting through the drug house’s defenders as if they were nothing more than a bunch of punk kids with BB guns.

The most interesting aspect of the raid scene is how it also exposes the team’s toxic nature, specifically through their decision to lift $10 million dollars from the recovered drug money under the direction of Breacher. The film doesn’t level any moral judgement on this act, but it does imbue it with a foreboding quality. It illustrates that this is far from a perfect team, and that it’s a group whose judgement has been compromised by a proclivity for self-destruction.

After the raid and the theft, the team is almost immediately placed under investigation and is suspended from active field work. Ayer seizes this opportunity to depict how the team’s battlefield efficacy belies their inability to deal with everyday civilian life. The team members are shown to descend into a type of debauched idleness without their violent profession to ground them. A prolonged scene features them lounging about in a ramshackle building, swilling beer and playing video games, before finally snapping to some semblance of professionalism when Breacher enters the room. Other signs of dysfunction are revealed at this point, such as indications that Mireille Enos’s Lizzy is addicted to drugs, and that any cohesion among the team has been shattered due to the investigation.

If there is a comparable situation to the dysfunctional nature of Sabotage’s team, it is found in The Expendables 3 (a full discussion can be read here). In that film Sylvester Stallone also sought to meditate on the nature of action heroism, layering his stock character of Barney Ross with an affecting tone of patriarchal responsibility. The film paired its tried and true action formulas with deeply off-putting and surprisingly nuanced moments of dysfunction. It included a scene similar to the one in Sabotage, where some of the Expendables get sidelined and quickly descend into inertia, rage and borderline alcoholism.

This depiction of how a proclivity for violence robs one of their functionality in everyday contexts dominates the emotional cores of Sabotage and The Expendables 3. It also leads one to reconsider the patriarchal leader at the heart of each story. Both Breacher and Barney are action heroes with greater baggage than other characters previously played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Additionally, in both films the qualitative value of their leadership is called into question, and the fighting forces that they have created (and are responsible for) often appear as more of a liability than a boon.

In Sabotage that liability is personified by Mireille Enos’s Lizzy, whose insanity is made abundantly clear as the film progresses. As discussed, Ayer’s film revolves around the team’s dicey decision to steal a small portion of the drug money recovered in the opening raid. Things become complicated when the team tries to reclaim the money from where they stashed it following the theft, only to find that it has disappeared. Complications continue when members of the team begin winding up dead following their return to active duty. Although the film’s characters speculate that it may be the cartels seeking payback, in the end it is revealed that Lizzy is the one behind the killing. This is due to the misguided belief that one or all of her team members swindled her out of her cut of the stolen funds.

This twist makes little sense if one approaches it rationally. Lizzy has no real justification to kill her brothers in arms, regardless of how hyperbolically the film views her volatile mental health. Lizzy’s descent into homicidal madness only makes sense in a thematic context, specifically in regards to the film’s interest in parsing the darkness of Arnold’s character and how that darkness has damaged those he was responsible for protecting and guiding.

During this exploration, Ayer creates engaging moments of tension. This is accomplished by building out the dysfunctional nature of Breacher’s team (through the material outlined above) and then juxtaposing it with classic Arnold iconography. The viewer is then prompted to reevaluate their relationship to Schwarzenegger’s almost mythic presence. One such moment focuses on the team attempting to retrain after being sidelined during the federal investigation into the stolen money. They are shown to struggle with basic teamwork and can hardly clear a room effectively.  They find themselves able to reunite only after receiving instruction from Arnold. In the last room they clear, they find him smiling proudly on a couch – a massive, celebratory stogie clutched between his teeth.

Such visual touches, which immediately connect one to Arnold’s earlier career of cheerful cigar-chomping amidst bloodletting, are few and far between, completely eclipsed by the film’s later revelations. During these revelations, Ayer shows how the intrinsic and volatile dysfunction of the team has been exacerbated by Breacher’s own damaged soul. After Arnold’s character subdues Lizzy during the climax, he reveals that it was he who stole the money and that it was he who allowed his team members – not to mention a myriad of investigatory law agencies – to run around in circles and gradually destroy themselves.

The purpose for Breacher’s duplicity is revealed through flashbacks, where we learn that Breacher’s wife was murdered by cartels in retaliation for his work with the DEA. It is also revealed that the lawman had attempted to track down those responsible in Mexico but was ultimately unsuccessful.

This leads finally to the film’s epilogue, where we see Breacher utilize the $10 million to pay for information on the men’s whereabouts and then watch as he enacts bloody vengeance on the perps. Standing easily as one of the greatest, most fascinating moments in the star’s long career, the ending of Sabotage is one dominated by the filmmakers’ clear desire to take a more realistic approach to depicting Arnold on-screen. Despite being the one who willfully contributed to his own team’s destruction, Arnold’s Breacher remains unapologetically committed to revenge in the film’s final moments. With his team gone, and with himself being the one to have killed Lizzy, Breacher reveals himself as what we all secretly knew him to be: an archetypal killer.

It is no surprise that Sabotage’s vengeful conclusion includes Breacher dressed in the garb of a stereotypical cowboy, complete with an astounding ten-gallon hat. It is no real surprise that, like in The Last Stand, Arnold’s character asserts what he believes to be his superior moral character when he faces down his wife’s killer in the bathroom of a small Mexican bar. “I’m not like you,” he says simply, before blowing a bloody hole in the man’s head. Sabotage shows that such a distinction is not really clear. In its final moments, Sabotage functions as a cruel reflection of The Last Stand. If that earlier film depicted Arnold and his world with all the realism of the Roadrunner battling Wile E. Coyote, then Sabotage is a depiction of nature in reality, marked by a nasty and brutish ferocity.

Unlike The Last Stand, Sabotage is also not complicit in the actions of its main character. His heroism is not asserted by the film’s end. Ayer proves this when he follows Breacher out into the bar’s main area and observes the character unload his weaponry, not only into other cartel members, but into innocents, inanimate objects, everything.

This darker statement on the cinematic Arnold character reveals him in a powerful new light. His character is one whose thin veneer of goodness masks a rampaging violence, which threatens the lives of not only his enemies, but also those who align themselves with him (or those who follow him). It is also a character synonymous with archetypal images of American cinema, such as Eastwood’s and Wayne’s cowboys.

His character in Sabotage is doomed from the very beginning, destined to never escape his violent milieu aside from a perversely violent exit. These different ideas are what allow Sabotage to be Arnold’s and Ayer’s answer to Unforgiven. Both films center on men whose involvement in a violent world has essentially erased their ability to have a life outside of it.

This isn’t really a new phenomena; the figure of the cinematic action star (if he or she stays around long enough) seems to be one destined to have an eventual on-screen confrontation with the self (just look at Van-Damme’s JCVD, Wayne’s The Searchers, Eastwood’s later period, Stallone’s The Expendables, etc.). Sabotage’s lack of novelty, however, doesn’t cheapen its eloquence or its skillful channeling of the themes of Unforgiven and Arnie’s powerful star wattage. It is a humbling, disparaging take on the man’s legend, in that it transitions him from being a hero living in a cinematic world devoid of morals, to a man whose violence is truly disturbing and whose influence is awful and toxic. In Sabotage Arnold is, for lack of a better word, pathetic. His violent, muscular posturing hides a startling, realistic and simple man who just desperately wants to feel better – no matter what the cost.

III. “I Made a Promise to Your Mother…” – Arnold’s Fading Star and Transcendent Performance in Maggie

The Last Stand was a Schwarenegger film of old. It may have postured that it had greater moral weight than earlier, pre-political Arnold films, but in the end it reasserted the star as a moral dispenser of on-screen violence. Sabotage however took it one step further. It showcased the reality of what an Arnold-type person would actually be: violent, obsessive, whose paternal influence is destructive to those who follow him, and whose neurosis is predicated on a violent life and can only be cleansed in blood.

Sabotage also evoked the notion that the Arnold character is one that can be about impotence as much as it is about strength. Arnold’s Breacher was a man shown to be incapable of protecting those he loved and dealing with his own inner-demons.

In short, Sabotage showed the star rapidly losing his hold on the cinematic worlds in which he operates. This theme came to the forefront in this year’s Maggie, a work that humbles Arnold’s on-screen character and clearly embodies the changes that have occurred in the real man’s professional interests and capabilities.

Maggie centers on the character of Wade (Schwarzenegger) and his family, which includes his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) and his second wife Caroline (Joely Richardson). The family, like the rest of the world, is struggling to make sense of their lives, which have been upended by a devastating and entirely unexplained zombie outbreak. While there is still some semblance of order, with medical facilities and law enforcement still present in the film’s blighted landscape, a mood of gloom and dread cloaks the proceedings of the film. Director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3 fashion a brooding, almost mono-chromatic world, full of fear, paranoia and outright delusion.

In Maggie the filmmakers strip Schwarzenegger of all remaining vestiges of innate power. His Wade is solemn and mournful. He barely speaks but certainly exudes a particular type of love, one so potent it could only be the love that comes from a parent towards their child. It is Schwarzenegger’s most spartan performance but also easily one of his best.

The story opens with Wade on the search for Maggie, who has absconded from the family farm after having been bitten by a zombie in events prior to the film. After searching for weeks, Wade locates her in a makeshift hospital in the middle of a wasted, post-apocalyptic metropolis. This sequence encapsulates the poignant bond that exists between the father and daughter, which John Scott 3’s script extrapolates upon later. While the log line of the film insinuates how valuable parental love can be, in that it pushes a parent to “stop at nothing” to save their child, Maggie eventually begins to suggest the inverse: Sometimes it’s not noble to continually bring a child back, sometimes you have to let them go.

Love’s enervating power is one of Maggie’s most potent themes, and it greatly informs the way Schwarzenegger’s presence is handled by the fledgling filmmakers. For most of Maggie the action centers solely on Wade and his daughter. A major section of the tale though shifts the film’s POV solely to Maggie’s perspective, with Schwarzenegger disappearing entirely from the screen. This is a critical and much appreciated shift. It is congruent with a story obsessed with inverting your expectations on Arnold’s cinematic strength, not to mention the strength of paternal love in general.

The story of the film is almost devoid of any notable plot points, basically amounting to little more than a debate about what Maggie’s fate should be once her zombism worsens. This is where Scott 3’s script is the strongest. It becomes increasingly dubious whether or not Wade will be able to act decisively regarding Maggie’s fate, especially as the choices are all equally insufferable. Through sparse bits of dialogue, it is revealed that the remnants of the government have set up quarantine zones where all infected members of the populace are required to go once their zombism reaches a particular stage. A ghoulish rumor hangs over the mandate, suggesting that the infected are given no comfort at quarantine and that their final days are marked by suffering and cruelty. This frightening possibility is shown to burden Arnold’s Wade during the film, imbuing the character’s physicality with a sort of aged torpidity. It drifts like a specter throughout each scene, like an unseen antagonist. It is what Wade also attempts to fight against. He is shown repeatedly ruminating on whether it should be he who humanely ends his daughter’s life with a well-placed bullet.

The complete absence of a prototypical antagonist is a key point in attempting to understand what Maggie has to say about Arnold’s star persona and his post-political career. The world that his character inhabits is about as far from something like 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead as it can get. It is a subjective take on zombism, almost impressionistic in its style. This is seen particularly in how Maggie’s infection is treated. Unlike many other cultural products that focus on the zombie archetype, where the infected subject experiences a rapid transformation, Maggie’s affliction progresses almost excruciatingly slow. For a major section of the film, the physical markers of her disease are restricted to discolored, rotting skin near the base of her bicep, which looks remarkably like the product of heroin abuse. Additionally, Arnold’s character is almost never called upon to use physical force. The roving gangs of marauders, which seem to grow on trees in The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic tales, are entirely absent. This probably has a lot to do with the film’s lack of a budget and Arnold’s dwindling box-office draw.

But perhaps these aesthetics speak to something more substantial than cynical predictions about Schwarzenegger’s longevity and viability as a leading man. Perhaps they illustrate the completion of Schwarzenegger’s late-period transition: from playing metahuman characters with extraordinary gifts; to embodying the simple, flawed and paternal heroism of the everyday. In Maggie, the zombism of the plot is merely a cipher, a method for exploring something far greater and universal. The affliction Maggie and Wade struggle with throughout the film could be anything, any sort of biological or emotional malady that a human being might have to contend with.

For some, Maggie has proven to be relentlessly somber, a dark chamber piece that is hardly a joy to sit through. Such criticisms are definitely valid. Maggie is by no means a fun, rollicking ride. It has a thematic cohesiveness however that is impossible to deny, particularly the way it intertwines its discussion of parents and children with its use of the Arnold Schwarzenegger figure. Because Maggie deemphasizes its zombism, and because nearly every element of the film – from the dialogue to the music – is injected with a mournful, apologetic note, it is able to broach the harsh yet truthful nature of a parent’s limitations. When Wade says to Maggie soon after bringing her back to the farm, “I made a promise to your mother that I would protect you,” the tense, emotional core of the film is revealed. It’s not an empty promise but one that may be impossible to keep.

The use of Arnold as Wade is fundamental to these ideas and the appearance of the actor in Maggie imbues its themes with a far greater and more cogent force. Every child must eventually realize that their parents aren’t Olympian superheroes, and every parent must eventually contend with their own impotence. In Hobson’s film these notions are all over the frame, reducing and humbling Arnold completely, rejecting the attributes of power and infallibility once seen as synonymous with the star. It completes his journey away from the superstardom he enjoyed as an action god. It turns him, finally and refreshingly, into a normal man. In Maggie, Arnold’s father figure can barely raise his gun; he can’t do what he knows needs to be done.

III. Conclusion: Conan, Terminator, Triplets and Arnold’s Uncertain Future

It is impossible to know exactly what the future holds for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. Well, to some degree we know. Arnold plans to spend the next few years producing and promoting continuations of several of his best-known and best-loved films. One of these is already out in theaters: Terminator Genisys, the fifth installment of the now rusty series.

Like nearly all of Arnold’s recent efforts, Terminator Genisys’s opening was a commercial and critical disappointment. The film was savaged by critics and, despite what Paramount’s brand managers might tell you, has been far from a box office colossus. Of course, being a franchise film with a built-in audience, it is hard to picture that the film will be a considerable box office failure, unlike the three films profiled here which all lost substantial money. It’s very possible though that once Arnold exhausts his franchise reserves he could face a rather uncertain future in front of the camera. This is particularly true considering the current filmmaking environment in Hollywood, where a modestly budgeted film like The Last Stand ($45-50 million) is an anomaly.

The best case scenario is that Arnold will continue to seek out challenging material, particularly like that found in Sabotage and Maggie, and to a far lesser degree in The Last Stand. In a perfect world he would continue to play with his own star persona. He would appear in material with complex themes, such as investigations into violence and its effects (Sabotage) or explorations of the burdening nature of parenthood (Maggie). This outcome, of course, appears unlikely; if only due to how recent history suggests that there just isn’t an audience for it.

And we must ask ourselves why that is. Why was it that Arnold being presented as a killing machine, free from moral introspection, turned the actor into one of the biggest movie stars the world has ever known? And why is it that audiences have abandoned him since he inverted that paradigm and shown himself as not only a man on-screen but a deeply damaged one at that?

There are probably quite a few explanations to that question – some interesting, some not. The more important question, at least to me, is what Arnold will do with the time he has left. His return to cinema since leaving politics has proven to be a humbling experience for the actor, both in terms of the material he has chosen and in the responses it has elicited from the public. While he is no longer the megastar he once was, Arnold still looms large enough in the cultural imagination to remain a presence in cinema if he so desires. He will, as he so succinctly has put it throughout his career, “be back,” at least for the foreseeable future. Considering the tension that exists between his pre and post-political outputs though, and how his recent work has deepened his credibility at the expense of his marketability, questions still remain. Which version of Arnold will be back? Which version should be back?

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