Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the silver screen has been as uneven as it has been revelatory. Ever since leaving the Governor’s Mansion of California in 2011, the Austrian Oak has struggled to replicate the consistent box-office success that, back in his glory days, made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. In strictly commercial terms, his post-political films have ranged from domestic disappointments to outright failures, many of them only managing to recoup their budget thanks to the increasingly dependable overseas market. Significantly, the most successful of these films – the Expendables sequels – only feature him as part of an ensemble cast and are consciously designed as a nostalgic throwback to the musclebound violent action films of the 1980s that made his career possible in the first place. In a globalized post-9/11 world where invincible macho men have been replaced by costumed superheroes and pre-established fictional properties attract more audiences than the actors starring in them, what path can someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger take to stay relevant?
If recent creative decisions are anything to go by, the answer he appears to have chosen is drama. It’s certainly a strange and certainly unexpected career turn, but one that may yet hold the keys to Schwarzenegger’s cinematic salvation. Bearded and unkempt, the wrinkles on his face made all the more pronounced by the stiffness of past plastic surgery, his appearance in 2015’s zombie tragedy Maggie humanized him in a way that would have been unthinkable in his heyday. The film itself may have been stifled by Henry Hobson’s unimaginative direction but Schwarzenegger’s weary performance, perhaps influenced by his recent personal and commercial failures, evidenced growth as an actor that would make a dramatic career seem less implausible than it would have twenty years ago.
Sadly, despite manifest commitment on the part of its star, Aftermath misuses Schwarzenegger’s efforts even more by exploiting a real-life tragedy for shallow, supercilious sentiment without saying anything of substance on the feelings and experiences involved. Very loosely inspired by true events following the 2002 Überlingen disaster, in which air traffic miscommunication caused a fatal collision between two flights, Aftermath follows the lives of two men directly affected by the catastrophe. The first one is Roman Melnyk (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a successful Ukrainian immigrant turned construction manager who loses his wife and pregnant daughter in the crash. The other is Jacob “Jake” Bonanos (Scoot McNairy), an air traffic controller who, through small and seemingly innocuous decisions made in circumstances outside his control, becomes partially responsible for the accident. The film is arranged in a succession of parallel montages detailing how each man’s life is affected by the tragedy: Jake’s personal and professional life get derailed as he takes most of the blame for the victims’ deaths and falls into a guilt-induced depression that estranges him from his wife and son, while Roman grows more and more obsessed with finding someone to blame for his loss and getting them to apologize.
Because of the story’s narrative structure and loose basis in fact, we know it’s only a matter of time until their paths collide; the film’s success or failure hinges on the way it outlines the desires, emotions and decisions building up to that collision and their effect on its outcome. To get such a process right is more than a matter of simply comparing each man’s pain and contrasting their respective methods for dealing with it. It means cutting through what the characters are obviously doing, saying and feeling to dig out hidden points of convergence and divergence that give their arcs meaning. Alas, the screenplay, credited to Javier Gullón of Enemy fame, is too content with taking its characters at face value to even consider that.
The core idea behind the way Aftermath chooses to execute its premise is that the collateral victim of an accident and the person rendered responsible for it both suffer in more or less equal measure. This idea gets declined in every visual shorthand for mental breakdown you’d expect in this kind of drama: Roman staring at newspaper clippings and photos of his dead family plastered on a wall, Jake sitting in front of the TV with a recently-acquired gun on his lap, Roman watching old home videos in a room littered with empty cans and takeaway boxes… What these self-serious tableaux of torment fail to examine in any meaningful way is the men’s shared inability to express their emotions in a healthy and honest way: Each man retreats into the depths of his misery and shuts out any external attempt at communication. It’s in this headspace of psychological chaos that lies the tragic irony that should be the film’s guiding point: what the men have most in common – their grieving method and the cause of their grief – is precisely what makes their climatic collision unavoidably violent.
A more perspicacious filmmaker than Elliott Lester would have delved deeper into these men’s lack of proper emotional expression and used the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger to connect the problem to patriarchal social structures. This is, after all, a man who has built his entire career out of a public persona that glorified violently toxic hypermasculinity to an almost parodic degree; his entire appeal resides in the fact that his cartoonish accent and appearance kept his violence at a safe emotional distance, often in the form of tongue-in-cheek irony (as best seen in Commando, Total Recall and Last Action Hero). Indeed, the fundamental interest in watching Schwarzenegger perform dramatic roles is to see him drop the knowingly macho act and take greater risks in exposing himself. With a better script and proper direction, Roman Melnyk could have shown how damaging the values espoused by virile action romps can be when applied to complex real-life situations. But that prospect never fully materializes, as if Lester and Gullón were incapable of imagining even the most ordinary facets of life outside the frame of cookie-cutter melodrama.
The lack of imagination on display is most evident in what casual film buff jargon would refer to as the “big” scenes of the film. Every emotion the characters are meant to feel, every idea Lester regards as important, is signaled to the audience like flashing neon sign. If a character is about to receive terrible news, a slow-motion countershot of a passerby’s traumatized face with ominous effects in the back of the soundtrack are here to make that clear. If Lester want to draw us into a distressed character’s mental space, he’ll drown out surrounding dialogue with rumbling noise to show us that he’s in too much pain to listen. Pathos here is reduced to a series of indie-movie mechanisms: dulling background noise in order to emphasize the heavy sound of individual footsteps, playing muffled drums on the soundtrack to imitate a heartbeat, slow-motion walks, a systematic use of long focals to isolate the characters… Lester may have watched the films of Darren Aronofsky (credited here as producer) but he has learned all the wrong lessons from them.
The insipidness of Lester’s direction only makes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s demonstrations of greater emotional range and depth feel more futile. As both star and co-producer of the film, it’s clear that he’s poured a great deal of effort into his performance and it shows. Of particular note is a dialogue between Roman and his concerned boss, in which Schwarzenegger expresses the confused, contradictory rationalizations of a man still trying to explain his own feelings to himself with surprising poignancy. Alas, scenes that afford him such unhindered moments of vulnerability are few and far between, and most of those that intent to do so end up stifled by superfluous artifice.
Consider the scene in which his character joins a group of volunteers at the site of the crash to find his family’s remains and confront the harsh reality of their deaths head-on: Clad in a white protective suit that leaves only his grizzled face uncovered, he walks in a graveyard of dead trees littered with wreckage and lost items, until the discovery of a pearl necklace he once gave his daughter leads him to find her corpse sitting helplessly on a branch. The desolate landscape and Mark Todd’s somber score give the scene a harrowing quality that is diminished by overbearing sound design, overly-bright lighting and blocking that fails to make any use Schwarzenegger’s unique physicality when the moment would have benefited from it. Like a giant treading uneasily on foreign ground, his body mirrors his emotional displacement but the camera seems utterly oblivious to it.
Yet amidst the endless sea of flatly-lit medium shots and long focals that drown the characters’ development, a few islets of quality occasionally surface. The accident itself is handled with an uncharacteristically subtle balance of suspense and subtlety, built up by a series of actions as seemingly inconsequential as a colleague getting up to get snacks or repairmen being allowed to temporarily cut the phones, ultimately signified by the sudden disappearance of two blinking spots on the radar and an abrupt end in the soundtrack. In an unexpectedly welcome burst of creativity, the climax is prefigured by a nightmare scene where home video footage of Roman’s wife and daughter blends with shots of him screaming in his hotel room in monstrous postures filmed in similarly grainy video, a genuinely unsettling expression of what the mishandling of his own grief has turned him into.
It’s too bad that that scene ends up working as an unintentional metaphor for the film itself: an ungainly distorted image of real events and people who, no matter what their actions, deserved much better. Like a low-budget 21 Grams, Aftermath attempts to climb a hill of Big Ideas on guilt, revenge and forgiveness only to be brought down by the weight of its own portentousness. Like Iñárittu’s overrated 2003 melodrama, its chief offense is the underlying confusion it entertains between empathy and pity. But where Iñárittu showed at least enough aesthetic ambition to make his misery porn more palatable, Elliott Lester’s bursts of inventiveness are too rare to feel like anything else than accidental. The next time Arnold Schwarzenegger gets out of his comfort zone, it had better be in a film that’s at least as good as his performance.
Dir: Elliott Lester
Scr: Javier Gullón
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace, Glenn Morshower, Judah Nelson, Mariana Klaveno, Hannah Ware, Lewis Pullman, Kevin Zegers, Larry Sullivan
Prd: Darren Aronofsky, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Dealbert, Randall Emmett, Scott Franklin, George Furla, Eric Watson, Anthony Callie, Timothy C. Sullivan, William B. Steakley
DOP: Pieter Vermeer
Editing: Nicholas Wayman-Harris
Music: Mark D. Todd
Running time: 90 min