If you've ever lost anyone in a senseless tragedy then you will likely find yourself identifying deeply with Roman (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a construction foreman facing extraordinary losses when the airplane carrying his wife and daughter home collides with another airliner in mid-air leaving no survivors.
Caused, it would seem by the human error of a momentarily distracted air traffic controller, the crash becomes the tattered and frayed tie that binds together the lives of Roman, played with an uncommon vulnerability by Schwarzenegger, and Jake, whose own life is left in chaotic disarray brought heartachingly to life by Scott McNairy.
Aftermath is based upon the true story of Vitaly Kaloyev, a Russian architect who murdered the air traffic controller he blamed for the death of his family in a 2004 plane crash. In Kaloyev's case, the grief-stricken judgment, while understandable, was largely viewed as incorrect. In Aftermath, director Elliott Lester (Love is the Drug) and scribe Javier Gullon (Enemy) afford Roman a more righteous and justifiable rage that becomes increasingly out of control the more bureacracy keeps finding its way to his doorstep.
To say that Schwarzenegger is exceptional here feels somewhat an understatement. Aftermath devastated me in much the same way as did Mark Wahlberg's top notch turn in Patriots Day, an unexpectedly stellar accounting of the Boston Marathon bombing and its own aftermath that featured Wahlberg moving beyond his usual bravado shtick into a more layered and authentic realm. The thing is, we knew that Wahlberg could act. He may have machismo as his bread n' butter, but Wahlberg has proven time and again he's capable of more nuanced, satisfying performances. Schwarzenegger? Oh sure, he's had his satisfying performances throughout his career but we've never seen a Schwarzenegger performance like we see in Aftermath, a performance that is underplayed, deeply felt and immensely moving and that even helps to make a slightly predictable and formulaic ending that much more palatable.
Aftermath isn't your usual Schwarzenegger popcorn flick. Instead, it's the kind of film that lingers in your psyche' and makes you ask yourself the question "What would you do?"
What WOULD you do if someone, or if you perceived that someone, took everything that mattered to you?
Would you trust some sense of justice? Would you forgive? Would you seek revenge? This question, "What would you do?," is what serves as the foundation for Aftermath. It's a question that is answered, perhaps realistically, in a way that manages to be both predictably formulaic yet emotionally satisfying and more thought-provoking than one might expect.
In addition to Schwarzenegger's performance, which I'd dare say is a career best for him, Scoot McNairy is riveting as Jake, who is initially portrayed as a bit cocky to the point of cavalier yet whose humanity is in fine hands with McNairy. McNairy has a gift for delving deeper into characters who could so easily be one-note and, indeed, that's exactly what he does here. Maggie Grace and Judah Nelson also shine as Jake's fractured wife and son.
Amidst the intimate drama that unfolds in Aftermath, Javier Gullon manages to also paint a vivid, frustratingly realistic picture of the bureaucracy that unfolds after a trauma and how that bureaucracy can add fuel to the trauma's fire for all involved. I suppose you could say it's a realistic look inside the procedural aspects of trauma, but Gullon takes it infinitely deeper.
Mark Todd's original music serves as a perfect companion to the film, while D.P. Pieter Vermeer manages to infuse practically every scene with both an epic sense of the trauma and the intimacy of the lives destroyed by it.
Aftermath is not without its flaws, most notably an ending that moves less patiently than had the rest of the film and feels a tad abrupt and predictable. Though, rest assured, this is a minor quibble for a film that is truly one of Schwarzenegger's most thought-provoking and emotionally resonant to date. While Schwarzenegger has struggled to regain his Hollywood foothold since setting his political career aside, Aftermath is a sure sign that, at least critically, his best days may very well be ahead of him.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic