Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďSo we have a virus with no treatment protocol and no vaccine at this time."
You probably donít know this, but you touch your face thousands of times on a daily basis; to be such a prolific event, it rarely amounts to anything (unless youíre clumsy and prone to poking yourself in the eye). After seeing Contagion, youíre likely to think twice about it, though, and this is not to mention all of the other germ-ridden objects you casually touch on a daily basis. Forget hand sanitizer--just go ahead and buy yourself a biohazard suit now because Steven Soderberghís pandemic-thriller is that unnerving.
Itís concerned with a highly contagious and lethal virus spreads across the globe, leaving health experts and politicians all over the world tracing its spread and attempting to develop a cure. Meanwhile, the general populace endures the expected panic caused by such a pandemic as they attempt to come to grips as life as we know it begins to crumble under the weight of paranoia and uncertainty.
Contagion is a real horror movie, and Iím not saying that in grand, hyperbolic fashion; instead, I mean it literally--the stuff it deals with is very genuine. Downright frightening in its authenticity, itís an efficient, gripping thriller that feels as though itís been culled from our headlines and newscasts. However, despite the outbreaks of swine and bird flu in recent years, I canít help but think thereís still a sort of distancing effect with those events; Iím not sure if I ever came close to encountering anyone afflicted by either of those, and the hysteria caused by both is quaint in hindsight. Contagion seems well aware of that fact and even references both as it creates a sweeping portrait of panic that does what all great horror should do by making us consider how scary something like this would be.
Soderbergh accomplishes this with ease because his lens doesnít act as a camera so much as a microscope. The film opens in complete darkness and is accompanied by a startling cough, which sets the tone immediately; when it comes to bio-thrillers, those deep, sickly coughs are the equivalent of a well-placed stinger. From there, every miniscule action (such as a hand simply touching the rail on a bus) is packed with ominous portent. Innocuous stuff like doorknobs and handshakes should be avoided like the plague (Ďcause theyíll give you the plague!). Perhaps most unsettling is the swift, undetectable efficiency with which the virus spreads; thereís a great montage early on that reveals the exponential breadth of the pandemic, as it manages to hit all corners of the globe within days.
The filmís scope is key; while the small, minute actions are scary in an insidious way, the apocalyptic purview is even more unsettling. This is really a film of about two epidemics, as both the virus and the ensuing panic run rampant. Soderbergh seems much more interested in the latter, as Contagion is an exploration of paranoia, bureaucracy, greed, and conspiracy; as is often the case in films like this, mankind is sometimes their own worst enemy. Jude Law plays an blogger that becomes a sort of messiah figure who also witnesses an exponential growth--his number of visitors jumps from 2 million to 12 million as the virus spreads along with his insistence that the government is hiding the truth from the population. His charisma and our natural distrust for authority figures mix to create a compelling subplot that reveals the bleak opportunism that arises during disaster.
However, the script holds its cards close, as itís much too smart to settle for a one dimensional display of a techno-prophet clashing with Big Brother. Many government and health figures are portrayed in a positive light; in fact, Lawrence Fishburne gives one of my favorite performances of the year in the role of the beleaguered head of the CDC. Warm, assuring, confident, and kind, we first meet him as he strolls into his building after having a chat with the janitor (John Hawkes, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors). Itís a seemingly small moment that eventually has an outstanding payoff, and it speaks to the economy with which Soderbergh establishes his characters, many of whom are eeking out whatever existence is possible. For example, Fishburne is surrounded by a league of scientists whose dignity in the line of such horrifying duty is fascinating to watch.
It of course helps that Soderbergh has littered the film with an assortment of talented actors whose gravitas elevates Contagion. In this sense, it plays like an update of those 70s disaster movies; really, the only person missing here is Charlton Heston. Among the enormous cast are Gwyneth Paltrow (whose head has its most memorable moment since Seven), Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, and Elliot Gould--and thatís just counting those with Oscar wins or nominations. Damon is particularly affecting; heís Paltrowís husband who is left a widower and tasked with keeping his daughter safe from the virus. His is a powerful journey that acts as the intimate counterbalance to the panoramic terror of it all. We watch him move through all of the stages of grief in a reserved but powerful fashion, and his encounter with denial is particularly heartbreaking.
And while there might be some affirming themes of sacrifice, nobility, and coping, make no mistake: that sheer terror is at the forefront of it all. Even visually, this is a cold, muted film that suffocates you with sterility, and itís packed with staggering images of deserted neighborhoods and chaos-stricken cities. Its sickly aesthetic reaches all the way to the actors, many of whom seem a bit shaggy and unassuming (unsurprisingly, that trick doesnít work with Cotillard, who is as radiant as ever). Cliff Martinezís score is eclectically comprised of some pulsing techno rhythms and more traditional string-based numbers that especially heighten the intensity of the disease's sprawl.
Soderberghís commitment to the horror is certainly aided by his refusal to relent to conventions--this isnít the type of film that magically resolves its pandemic with a magic serum, nor does it ever really let you off the hook. He does a great inversion of the typical ďitís not overĒ final scare by showing us how this type of destruction can be so casually and accidentally wrought in the first place. Contagionís horrors are ultimately the worst kind: inexplicable, unpredictable, and overwhelming. Joining the ranks of the great films to capture the sheer dread of the endtimes, itíll make you wary of all the germs that crawling around you on a daily basis. Above all, itís a stark reminder of how unfathomable something like this would be; that it somehow so adequately captures the dreadful awe of something we donít even want to imagine speaks volumes. Buy it!
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