Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Collision course: "Aftermath"

What's a sometime Governator to do now that he's approaching 70, finds himself out of office, and is obliged to return to a Hollywood that has more or less dismantled the star system to sell off its spare parts for VOD scrap? He might, for one, try and convince any remaining onlookers that he still has it within him to play the action hero, as Arnold Schwarzenegger (for it is he) did, to varying commercial effect, in the course of Escape Plan, The Last Stand and The Expendables 2 and 3. (The titles, perhaps, say it all.) Alternatively, he might attempt to reconfigure a self-evidently heavyweight screen presence, and try and see whether it might fit a series of diverse character roles - a Plan B Schwarzenegger first explored in signing up to 2015's glumly apocalyptic Maggie, and continues to follow in this week's scarcely jollier drama Aftermath.

Writer Javier Gullón (Enemy) and director Elliott Lester (who did the Jason Statham vehicle Blitz) here offer a sombre study of male obsession, centred on two men whose fates become linked in the wake of an air disaster: Roman (Schwarzenegger), a construction worker of Eastern European extraction, whose wife and pregnant daughter are wiped out when their plane strikes another on the outskirts of his native Pittsburgh; and Jacob (Scoot McNairy), the air traffic control wonk who, distracted by a tech failure, failed to notice these two flights approaching one another on the night in question - the first of several collisions that prove life-shattering in more ways than one.

We're heading seemingly in one direction, and all the film has to sustain it is a slightly facile parallelism. Where Jacob, understandably, succumbs to insomnia in the wake of the incident, Roman is discovered by a warden sleeping rough on his loved ones' grave; the former will himself lose his wife and child as the result of his increasingly erratic behaviour. Gullón has extracted the essence of a true story involving the Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev, and early on there's a sense he's working altogether dutifully through both those administrative procedures that follow in the wake of such disasters (the fraught process of gentrification, the offers of counselling and compensation) and his characters' seven stages of grief.

Still, Lester lends these scenes a modest, appropriately muted style - pointed pillow shots show vapour trails intersecting in the sky - and we're further drawn in by committed performers who endow this barebones script with some emotional muscle. The reliable McNairy (Monsters) does a fine job in outlining a blithe guy - a lightweight master of the universe, like the dudes in 1999's Pushing Tin - whose entire sense of self explodes the minute those planes collide; and there's yet more evidence to suggest that Schwarzenegger is a better actor now than at any previous stage of his career, his years in office having doubtless contributed to a surer feel for the camera, and how much or little he needs to do in front of it.

The Austrian Oak's solidity has never been much in doubt (and gets underlined here by an unexpected shower scene), but his newly furrowed brow complicates his screen persona: for much of the running time, we can't be sure whether Roman intends to use these broadest of shoulders to bear the weight of this tragedy, or to help crush the inattentive nobody who might, at a stretch, be considered responsible for it. For the characters' steady rate of approach is, it turns out, deceptive; so too the scene in which Roman, one year on from the crash, is seen rebuilding fences - an image of TV-movie obviousness surely intended to set up certain expectations within the audience.

The events of Aftermath's final act come as a genuine, gasp-inducing surprise - the kind of surprise contemporary American cinema so rarely delivers these days - but this leftfield turn destabilises the movie: here, real life (which doesn't have to make strict narrative sense, and frequently doesn't) comprehensively outfoxes any attempt at fiction. We're headed for a hasty-seeming coda that suggests either Lester doesn't quite have the heft yet to deal with tragedies of this scale, or that his producers may have intervened at the 25th hour. Grief remains a complex emotion, and some part of Aftermath understands that, but it still doesn't entirely know how to process it - which leaves it as an oddity: very watchable, and yet, despite its leading men's best efforts, somehow incomplete.

Aftermath opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on June 12.    

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