Fun fact: there have been 14 major feature films with the title Aftermath or The Aftermath.
Elliot Lester’s film, however, was originally titled 478, before it was changed to describe the film more directly. It certainly makes it look and sound more generic, and the presence of ageing strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger does little to make it stand out from the pack. If you knew nothing about this movie going in, you’d imagine that it’s a revenge drama with carefully orchestrated bone-crunching violence.
You’d only be half right if you thought that, because this is a Schwarzenegger in the serious drama phase of his career, his first role since 2015’s post-apocalyptic zombie drama Maggie.
Much like that film, Aftermath is meant to be a showcase for his acting skills, for him to have his ‘Oscar moment’. He plays Roman, a grizzled construction worker working in America, sending money back to his family in Ukraine.
He’s one of those familiar older men, the kind who dive into work especially in the years leading up to their retirement because they’re so terrified of a life where they don’t know what to do with their time. When he learns his wife and daughter are visiting him for Christmas, his foreman has to tell him twice to stay the hell away from work.
The other principal character in this story is Jacob Bonanos (Scoot McNairy), an archetypal, small-town American who lives an idyllic life in a quiet suburb (of another town) with his beautiful, caring wife Christina (Maggie Grace) and son. An early anecdote, as well as McNairy’s body language, tell us that he is a fragile man who doesn’t have the stomach for conflict, disagreement, and loneliness.
Based on a real-life incident that took place in Germany 15 years ago, Aftermath shakes things up with a tragedy. Jacob, who works as an air-traffic controller, comes into work, like any other day. The scene builds up slowly: his colleagues leave for a break, two maintenance workers show up to repair equipment unscheduled, he sips on bad coffee that might send him running to the bathroom at any moment. Somewhere, while trying to do his job under the circumstances, there’s a misunderstanding, and two planes collide in mid-air, killing everyone on board. One of those planes had taken off from Ukraine, with Roman’s wife and daughter on board.
There’s plenty of material to wring and extract compelling cinema from in this film, which Lester paces deliberately slowly, to match the rhythm of life experienced by the characters.
Schwarzenegger gives it a solid go and is frequently watchable, coming up with a performance that’s a little repetitive and rough around the edges, but watchable nevertheless.
McNairy, a great choice for the role, is several shades better, painting an intriguing picture of bewildered guilt and wounded male pride. Both succeed in conveying the film’s central idea: apologies provide catharsis, and sometimes men will go to any lengths for them.
What they’re let down by is the slight material of Javier Gullon’s script, which could’ve given them more to do and could’ve been more sharply written. There’s a sense of vagueness to the proceedings that make several portions leading up to the end — which is undeniably effective — a bit of a slog to endure. Its glacial pacing may work as a deterrent, and the territory it traverses might be familiar, but Aftermath has tiny rewards for those who choose to engage with it.
Join The Quint on WhatsApp. Type “JOIN” and send to 9910181818.