Directed by Elliott Lester.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace, Martin Donovan, Hannah Ware, Mariana Klaveno, Kevin Zegers, and Larry Sullivan.
Two strangers’ lives become inextricably bound together after a devastating plane crash.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is entering arguably the most interesting period of his career to date. The soon-to-be-septuagenarian seems well aware that he’s no longer credible as a gung-ho action star, and is slowly starting to lean towards lower-key (and certainly lower-budget) dramas that demand his grizzled grit rather than bulging biceps.
After 2015’s somber zombie drama Maggie proved Arnie’s more restrained acting chops, he follows up with this emotionally-charged dramatic thriller that touts one of his best and most considered performances to date.
Based on the very real 2002 Überlingen mid-air collision, Aftermath follows Roman (Schwarzenegger), a man whose wife and pregnant daughter are killed in a plane crash caused by negligent behaviour from air traffic control. Unable to let go of his rage, Roman seeks to track down the air traffic controller on duty, Jake Bonanos (Scoot McNairy), and confront him over seemingly destroying his life.
From the moment the horrific incident strikes early on, Aftermath is an emotional horror movie, capturing the harrowing heartbreak of losing a loved one under especially brutal circumstances. The unsettling manner in which the airline locks the unsuspecting families away in sterile rooms to break the news is far more disturbing than it sounds on paper.
Though Javier Gullón’s script frequently shifts perspectives between Roman and Jake, the early stages are all Arnie, who commendably tackles the role of a man drowning in his own grief and unable to reconcile how or why it happened.
Even though viewers may be aware of the grim turn Roman’s story eventually takes – and it seems rather crass to spoiler-gate a real-life tragedy – he starts out an immensely sympathetic figure, especially during an early meeting with the airline’s legal team, who coldly attempt to pay Roman paltry hush money to go away quietly.
Splitting the film’s drama between Schwarzenegger and McNairy’s characters isn’t merely a way to keep the budget low, though. The fragmented narrative works surprisingly well, thanks to McNairy’s Jake also being a well fleshed-out and devastatingly human figure, himself consumed with his unfortunate involvement in the catastrophe.
His emotional isolation mirrors Roman’s own, holing himself up with nobody to talk to, not really even his evasive, unavailable wife Christina (Maggie Grace). It’s all the more unsettling knowing that he and Roman are set on a collision course from which neither can seemingly escape.
Though unabashedly low-key and quiet for a film starring The Terminator himself, Aftermath refuses to shy away from the heavy stuff, daring Arnie to deliver, and even when the pic flirts with contrivance – such as a sequence where Roman sneaks into the plane crash’s clean-up operation to search for his family – his performance is so well-wrought that it’s easy to forgive. Juxtaposing the clinical nature of the clean-up with Roman’s internal destruction is bracingly effective, and director Elliott Lester (Blitz) milks it for all it’s worth.
The angry heartbreak is plenty palpable, but far more curiously, the film asks probing, difficult questions about humanity that you’d likely expect more from a Michael Haneke film than a limited release Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. If Aftermath makes any statement with true profundity, it’s how a desperate desire for closure and blame assignation can make victims into doomed monsters, but even when Roman takes things too far, Lester never ceases to capture both him and Jake in all of their very human pain.
As for the well-known climax of this story, it’s certainly the most difficult-to-nail aspect, and while definitely a little heavy-handed and overzealous when it comes to symbolism – plane crash sound effects are super-imposed over the Big Moment for a maximum lack of subtlety – it works more than it doesn’t.
Some unexpected changes are made to the real-life story that at once embellish and downplay various aspects – there’s virtually nothing here about the public perception of Roman, as was a major facet of the true tale – but in attempting to understand several senseless tragedies, it is certainly effective all the same.
An agreeably small, viscerally wrenching drama that vacillates between pleasant restraint and occasional dramatic excess, Aftermath shows Arnold Schwarzenegger making interesting use of the VOD medium, all while many of his action comrades are busy using it to dump their latest lame-brained shoot ’em ups.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.