Elliott Lester’s Aftermath deals with one of cinema’s most popular themes: grief. Why is something so morose utilized so often? Because it makes for inherent drama, as an on-screen character is forced to cope with darkened, crushing realities. Writer Javier Gullón wastes no time smashing two airplanes together during what will be their final descent, but we remain safely grounded. This isn’t about the midair disaster itself, but the pieces that need to be picked up – both figuratively and literally. It’s not what you might consider “fun” or “inviting,” but unhinged performances beckon a hopelessness that comes with a world of scorched memories. This one’s for the serious crowd, out there.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a construction worker named Roman, who expects to pick his wife and pregnant daughter up once their incoming flight lands. He enters the airport, and is led into a private waiting room after no touch-down estimate is displayed. This is where Roman learns that his family were aboard a flight that suffered catastrophic results, with no survivors expected. How’s a man supposed to react? Roman retreats from society, builds a wall and searches for answers – all leading to an air-traffic controller named Jake Bonaos (Scoot McNairy) whose oversight was purely accidental. That doesn’t bring deceased loved-ones from the grave, though. Nor does it bring relief to an equally tortured Jake. Two men, one disaster and the common thread that pulls them together. The universal acknowledgement of tragedy.
Scoot McNairy is in his comfort zone as a traumatized shell of flesh with nothing left inside, while Schwarzeneggar steps from behind his heroic signatures in Aftermath. No zingers, no combat and certainly no explosions of strength. Roman is not a character who needs to be restrained or calmed during some hulk-out rage. With the most human sensibility possible, he just wants someone to apologize. Stone-faced lawyers assign dollar amounts to lost lives, only increasing the unsettled disconnection that flickers and dims inside Roman with each passing day alone. It’s a lot of sullen Arnie gazing at photographs that now plaster his walls and shuffling around in bathrobes, but it’s an honest – and well represented – appropriation of grief in a drastic, albeit movie-friendly sense.
Then you have McNairy, the happy family man who morphs into a depressed, inhuman sad-sack who can barely arise from bed. In his defense, the collision of flights AX-112 and DH-616 happened because his tower companion stepped out and maintenance workers knocked out a necessary phone line. Is it Jake’s direct fault? Yes, but so many factors perfectly stage an unspeakable outcome. One could try to latch onto some shred of positivity, but McNairy instead becomes a pox upon his family. Wife Christina (Maggie Grace) witnesses Jake give his son uncooked eggs for breakfast (a strange way to show Jake’s detachment), and their exit becomes clear. Jake buys a gun with murky motivations, sobs uncontrollably and watches life crumble around him with whimpering regard. You feel for Jake, even if such emptiness has never been personally experienced. How can’t you?
Aftermath is anything but a constant standoff, though. Roman and Jake only share one scene together, during the film’s conclusion. Otherwise, Lester cuts back and forth between men whose emotions are duplicated even though their experiences are wholly different. As Jake regurgitates an over-dosage of medication, Roman stands atop an unfinished construction framework with a distant gaze. Both men contemplating death, unable to deal with their actions. It’s the suggestion that we are not alone in our thoughts, no matter how far we cast ourselves from society in these unimaginable moments. Back and forth the men duel in misery, both connecting and separating once the film flashes forward a year to show one has moved one, while the other still stews. A bit repetitive as breakdowns hit upon similarly sunken moments, but still with harrowed meaning.
In the end, it’s a rock-bottom finale that truly engages the lowest forms of mental abandon. A point is reached where both men have a choice. One continues to dwell, while the other tries to piece things back together. It’s the choice we’ll have when faced with adversity, and something Elliott Lester looks to juxtapose. These reveals are much more poignant than the actual dissection of grief that Aftermath sets out to uncover, but performances are what give an added boost. A stoic Schwarz, a shaking Scoot. Two men set on a collision course just like the event that sparked their destined paths. Not a momentous journey, but a stinging portrait of pain nonetheless.
Aftermath may not say much, but Arnold Schwarzenegger's reserved performance is a somber turn that keeps drama surprisingly in-tune.