Arnold Schwarzenegger has an easy kind of charisma and is talented at communicating charm. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron, 1991), he made a killer android sympathetic and in The Last Stand (Kim, 2013), he was infectious as a small-town sheriff stopping a gangster’s escape to Mexico. More recently he demonstrated the horror of letting a child succumb to a disease in Maggie (Hobson, 2015), where he plays a father who has to watch helplessly as his daughter dies of a zombie infection.
Each of these roles has genre elements, ensemble players and tense situations with built-in drama. In Maggie, Schwarzenegger’s most dramatic role to date, the zombie storyline, while not all gore and violence, worked as a foundation on which to build his interactions with compelling actors such as Joely Richardson and Abigail Breslin, bolstering his performance. But when the filmmakers decided to strip away the action, the sci-fi conceit, the threat of horror and remove the other actors, then they are relying on Schwarzenegger alone to do the heavy lifting of character expression, and that’s a risk.
Director Elliott Lester took this risk in Aftermath, and it didn’t pay off. The structure of the movie, edited by Nicholas Wayman-Harris, is interesting, jumping back and forth between Schwarzenegger’s building contractor Roman and Scoot McNairy’s Jake, an air traffic controller who shows up to work on the wrong night. We see Roman’s anticipation and excitement at the chance of him meeting his new grandchild and seeing his daughter, both of whom are traveling with his wife. At the same time, we see Jake as he encounters various problems and distractions and loses control of his situation, leading to the death of hundreds. This narrative strategy would theoretically work well to show how these two men become more distraught regarding the same event, and if handled differently, it would have shown how they become adversaries.
The problem with using this strategy is that Jake’s story is well executed and affecting, while Roman’s story is unengaging. We spend time with Jake and his family both before the accident and afterward, as he refuses to get out of bed or acts weird with his son. Writer Javier Gullon and director Elliott Lester have him interact with others, using situations and props to signify his breakdown.
But with Roman’s screen time, we are told through dialog that he loves his family, we are told, again through dialog, that he’s excited to be a granddad. In Man On Fire (Scott, 2004), we watched as Denzel Washington’s character went from a stumbling drunk bodyguard into a force of violence after his drunkenness led to him losing the child he was supposed to be protecting. In Aftermath there are some grainy flashback-style visual sequences but we never see Roman with his family, so we are left with Schwarzenegger alone to fill in the emotional back story, which is demanding work, even for a skilled dramatic actor such as Terrance Stamp or Liam Neeson. Without anyone to interact with and little to do, what we get here is a sad man sitting, a sad man walking, a sad man cleaning up plane wreckage, and the sequences fall flat.
In parallel to Roman’s slog, Jake’s story is told through actions such as being unable to cook breakfast for his son and McNairy is more adept at expressing the regret and depression that his character feels about the terrible events. The result was that I was way more sympathetic to Jake’s story and just annoyed with Roman’s, so that by the time the violence occurs in the third act, I was appalled and angry. I think the filmmakers intended the movie to be the collision course of two characters forced into confrontation, affected by one horrific event which was out of their control, but the buildup is uneven and lethargic, the violence dramatically unearned.
The premise has the elements and promise of a great thriller, which could have included philosophical themes examining personal responsibility, morals and/or the nature of grief. It could have been something like the situation in Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), where the lawyer who DeNiro’s character is hunting is initially cast as the hero but is found to be morally corrupt. Aftermath‘s script, by Javier Gullon hints, at these themes but never fleshes them out. Disregarding grander ambitions, the filmmakers still needed to communicate to the audience how the characters get to the point of wanting revenge, why the target (at least in the mind of the person seeking revenge) deserves it. The film would have benefitted from some interaction between Roman and Jake before the final confrontation, to create a sense of tension and to give Schwarzenegger a chance to build a relationship with him.
Low key movies that build to a violent climax can be enjoyable, but even a contemplative revenge movie like Victor Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold (1997) had at least one compelling physical altercation, no matter how small, that gets the audience’s hearts racing. Without dramatic buildup, an impressive fight sequence or compelling dialog, Aftermath is a well-constructed narrative framework that has moments of interest, but mostly it’s watching a deeply hurt and angry old man take out his frustrations over life’s unfairness on other people.