No matter your opinion of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a person, you can’t deny this: The man is a doer. And in Elliott Lester’s grief drama Aftermath, the ripped Renaissance man does a subtle, absorbing performance of despair so unlike his other work that his lined and laden face at times seems nearly unrecognizable on that bulging body. This is Arnold?
The film — based on the true events of a Russian architect who tracked down and murdered the air-traffic controller he considered responsible for the death of his wife and daughter — features Arnold as Roman, a construction foreman whose life falls apart after a deadly crash. The story necessitates ceaseless sadness, which can grind, but for the most part Aftermath glides just above the wreckage with its leads’ performances. Lester, however, can’t resist throwing in some easy, cheesy symbolism to slop it up.
Before the crash, Roman’s toddling around like the animated grandpa-to-be that he is. While waiting for his wife and daughter’s plane to arrive from Kiev, Roman gets ushered by airline personnel into a back room. He chatters nervously at them about his family’s papers being in order, but he’s not here for immigration woes — though let’s not take for granted the power of that real-life fear. His wife and daughter are dead. He’s then offered a paltry sum and counseling for his loss. You think any Schwarzenegger character, even a sad one, is going to settle for that?
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Roman, too, is a doer. Without revealing his connection, he volunteers at the crash site to search for remains; the moment he finds his daughter strapped into a seat belt and hanging from a tree isn’t milked for more drama than need be but affords Arnold his moment of sincere sobbing. Later, Roman has to somehow clean his house, go to work and not think about how weeks earlier he pulled his daughter’s limp body from a tree.
Alternately, we’re fed the storyline of Jacob (Scoot McNairy), the air-traffic controller who’s in the hot seat even when the crash was caused by tech malfunctions. McNairy’s overshadowed by his bearded-and-burly costar’s anguish acrobatics, but we see glints of greatness in the way Jacob’s eyes spark when his wife (Maggie Grace) tells him she’s taking their child away for a while. It’s like he’s just seen her for the first time in weeks. “I don’t even get to say goodbye?” he asks in a panic, misreading her intentions.
The acting here is good, but something is off in the production design: There’s the too-neat, almost stenciled harassing messages painted in red on Jacob’s house, or the way, when a guy tells Roman that he’s doing a good job building a fence and needs to take a break, it’s pretty clear that the only thing Roman has done is pry off a few boards. Such rookie mistakes can take you out of the picture, and Lester (Nightingale, Love Is the Drug) should know better, though I recall more similar falterings in Nightingale.
On a metaphorical level, Javier Gullón's script handles these two characters just like the planes that collided mid-flight: We know they will meet, and that whatever they’ve tried to do to correct their patterns will ultimately explode in a horrific way; we also know absolutely nothing about the other planes/people buzzing around them. Still, the climax proves quite shocking — that is, until the final few seconds, when Lester forces a symbolic moment that just does not fly. The film doesn’t need the sappy stuff when it’s got these performances at its center. Yes, it’s utterly strange to see Schwarzenegger emoting on such a raw level and framed with such gritty cinematography as he zombie-walks through his days, but it works — Arnold may have just reinvented his career yet again. Who needs a shit show like The Apprentice?