A film review by Craig J. Koban June 27, 2017

AFTERMATH jj
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2017, R, 92 mins.

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Roman  /  Maggie Grace as Christina  /  Kevin Zegers as John Gullick  /  Hannah Ware as Tessa  /  Scoot McNairy as Paul Bonanos

Directed by Elliott Lester  /  Written by Javier Gullón

Actors usually become substantially more compelling on screen as they grown older, wiser and reach the tail end of their careers.  

Arnold Schwarzenegger is no exception, not because he wasn't an authoritative screen presence in a multitude of his past films, but rather because now - at a relatively ripe old age of 69 - he's beginning to tackle more subtle and introverted parts that play up to his advancing years.  Gone are the days when Au-nald can plausibly play unstoppable chiseled behemoths.  With a commendable host of introspective roles during the last few years (including the horribly underrated MAGGIE and SABOTAGE), the Austrian actor is looking to move outside of his obligatory comfort zone to take on characters that are in stark contrast to his most iconic ones.  For the first time in his career, he's playing flawed, troubled and vulnerable everymen.   

The loosely fact-based AFTERMATH is a perfect example of Schwarzenegger attempting to play stripped down and spare roles that demystifies him as a cinematic action film god.  Instead of embodying a man of swift Herculean physicality, in AFTERMATH he plays a man emotionally broken down in life based on a hellish past trauma that took his family away from him.  Taking inspiration from the Uberlingen mid-air collision of two planes that occurred in the skies above the German town in July of 2002 (and a rather tragic event that happened in its wake years later), the film is on remarkably solid ground as a performance showpiece for Schwarzenegger embodying a wounded man of resentment filled inaction.  Unfortunately, AFTERMATH betrays its star's richly textured work by grounding him in a confused, muddled, and haphazardly shapeless narrative that's hopelessly disjointed at times, not to mention that everything builds towards one of the most deeply unsatisfying endings that I've seen in a movie in many a moon. 

 

 

Make no mistake, AFTERMATH has a positively riveting story to tell, but it awkwardly struggles with finding a cohesive manner of unveiling it to viewers.  The opening sections, though, are dramatically strong as we are thrust into the semi-fictionalized account of the aforementioned plane collision, but before that we're introduced to a few key characters before the hellish accident.  The first is construction worker Roman Melnik (Schwarzenegger), finishing his shift early so that he can make it to the airport on time to pick up his wife and daughter, both of whom are arriving on an incoming flight.  Upon his arrival at the airport Roman is greeted by some officials and is given the traumatizing news that the plane his family was on collided with another, killing everyone on board.  Predictably, Roman is devastated by the news and desperate for some much needed answers as to how this could have happened. 

It's at this point when the film segues to another character and flashes back to the past to provide an expository lead in to the aviation disaster.  We meet air traffic controller John Bonanos (Scoot McNairy), who's journeying off to the airport to begin his day that, yes, led to a serious miscalculation in judgment on his part that mournfully led to the two planes crashing into one another.  Much like Roman (but in vastly different ways), John also deals with penetrating grief as a result of what happened, but seeing as he's tied to the accident and responsible for it, his level of anguish and mental turmoil becomes almost incalculably huge.  As a vast investigation mounts, John sees his home life and overall mental well being diminish by the day.  Beyond this, the film flashes forward to the present and shows what both John and Roman have done with their lives well after the accident and how they have respectfully processed the loss of both of their families. 

AFTERMATH is a story of mutual shared grief over a single tragic event, with Roman being affected by the death of his wife and child and John being affected not only by the death of his marriage, but also with the nagging guilt of causing the deaths of Roman's family and other families on board the planes.  Ultimately, I found the sections that explored the ever growing fractured psyches of these two poor lost souls to be the film's more enthralling.  AFTERMATH documents the overwhelming sense of remorse that John feels for his misdeeds, which essentially destroyed his life, but it also examines the immeasurable toll that the accident had on Roman.  The film's latter half deals with how Roman processes his intense sorrow into acts of violent comeuppance.  The real man that inspired Schwarzenegger's character located the air traffic controller responsible and murdered him in cold blood, an act that sent him to prison. 

For the most part, I admired the thorny thematic terrain that AFTERMATH tackled, especially in dealing with how once good men are driven to revenge fuelled carnage to deal with depression over the loss of loved ones.  It's really all held together by Schwarzenegger, who has arguably never played a man so mentally and physically frail.  His understated and powerful work here is driven home in one key scene that involves him dealing with some slimy airline lawyers that essentially want to pay him off with a measly settlement.  The sequence could have been one fraught with shameful melodrama, but Schwarzenegger plays the scene with such caged rage and soft spoken spite that it simultaneously sells Roman's anger and sadness with immediacy and conviction.  Scoot McNairy may have the somewhat trickier role as John, who has to inhabit an endlessly distressed man that comes to the stark realization that he's essentially killed hundreds of people because of a preventable work mistake.  Like his co-star, McNairy thanklessly never overplays his role to histrionic soap opera levels.  You really feel this man's dread and pain.   

Despite two moody and effectively dialed down performances, AFTERMATH never really builds to the successfully earned dramatic crescendos that it wants to.  At barely over 90 minutes, the narrative covers way too much time over the course of years in a hastily cobbled together fashion that could have definitely benefited from a longer running time.  The film's slow-burn opening act is indeed intriguing, but as the plot ricochets back and forth between the two characters - sometimes smoothly, but more often than not rather inelegantly - you're left thinking that a better version of this tale was a few screenplay drafts away from achieving true symmetry.  And the manner that everything inevitably careens towards Roman's confrontation of John, which in turn leads to another long time shift and yet another confrontation between Roman and John's offspring is equal parts disturbing and frustrating to endure.  I understand the motive here, showing how people can, someway and somehow, find a manner of achieving inner peace and acceptance of past misdeeds, but it never pays off meaningfully because we never seen the journey of these characters towards this moment.  So much is glossed over in AFTERMATH that its ending is not only distractingly contrived, but it also never feels dramatically potent; it's a real cheat.

That's all too bad, because the film shows a side of Schwarzenegger that I do want to see more of, even though audiences don't seem as eager (AFTERMATH grossed under a million dollars in limited release earlier this year).  He's always been dogged by criticism for being an actor of limited range throughout his career, but Schwarzenegger is actively trying to defy his career-long critics, and his searing and potent work in AFTERMATH shows a growing thespian maturation that's most welcome.  He brings a seasoned discipline to the film, even when its screenplay doesn't.   

 

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