Contagion *** ½
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Scott Z. Burns.
Starring: Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Ellis Cheever), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears),
Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Jennifer Ehle (Dr. Ally Hextall), John Hawkes (Roger), Anna Jacoby-Heron (Jory Emhoff), Marion Kane ( Griffin Clark Morrow), Demetri Martin (Dr. David Eisenberg), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman), Bryan Cranston (Lyle Haggerty), Chin Han (Sun Feng), Sanaa Lathan (Aubrey Cheever).
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a thriller that moves with icy efficiency. It is about a epidemic of a new flu virus, that moves through the population quickly, killing many, infecting more and for which there is no vaccine or cure. We get these viruses, these diseases often, and most of the them their danger is overstated. SARS didn’t wipe out a million people, and neither did H1N1, but sooner or later a virus could easily come along that does. It has happened in the past, and to think we are immune from it happening again would be naïve. Contagion looks at what that may actually look like – with not just the disease, but also fear and paranoia spreading rapidly around the world.
The film opens with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), returning home from a trip to China. She stops off in Chicago to see an old lover, before heading back to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis. It isn’t long before she has collapse to the floor, convulsing and is carted off to the hospital. It isn’t long after that Mitch is told she is dead. In utter disbelief, he has to be told several times. Then he returns home, and finds out that his stepson, who was also sick since Beth came home, has also died. Mitch becomes paranoid, not just about his own safety, but for that of his daughter.
We then see Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC arriving to work, and exchanging friendly banter with a janitor (John Hawkes), before heading to his office and sending Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minneapolis. Beth is not the only one who has died, and the disease seems to be spreading in that city – along with in Chicago, and parts of China and Japan. Erin’s job is to take control in Minneapolis, and try her best to contain the outbreak. Cheever will oversee everything from Atlanta. Then there is Dr. Leonora Otantes (Marion Cotillard) of the WHO, whose job it is to find out where the disease originated, to help better cure it, and track where it’s going. She is shipped off to China, and starts reviewing hundreds of hours of videotape. But perhaps the Chinese people she is working with are not all that trustworthy – or perhaps they just want to ensure they are not shunted to the side. According to blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), no one is trustworthy, the government is out to get you, big pharmacy is trying to kill you and make money. According to him, there is a simple cure for the disease, and while he extols it on his ever increasingly popular blog, he makes a fortune on it behind closed doors.
These are just some of the people that Contagion tracks through it’s running time. The movie moves back and forth between them and others (like Jennifer Ehle, a doctor who is working on vaccine) to show the epic scope a virus like this can have on the worldwide population. When push comes to shove, and people’s lives are at stake, it’s amazing to see just how quickly society crumbles. And yet, the movie never goes sensationalistic – you can easily imagine everything that happens in Contagion actually happening were a virus like this really to spread. Society needs order to survive, but when your life, and the life of your family, are at stake, you don’t really know what you are capable of.
Soderbergh moves through these stories with little emotional attachment to the characters. That may sound like a criticism, but it really isn’t. This is a movie about the actions the characters take, not their emotions. There are too many characters to do an in depth character study of all of them. Instead, the movie looks at how these people would react – good, bad or most often, somewhere in between. The filmmaking is impeccable, moving with ruthless efficiency, and Cliff Martinez’s strange score helps to build the mood. The performances, by one of the best ensemble casts of the year, are all excellent, especially given their limitations. You could argue that Matt Damon’s understated, paranoid performance is the best, or that Jude Law’s slimy blogger is the best, or even Laurence Fishburne’s calm, reasoned assurance is the best. But for me, it would Kate Winslet’s, quiet, subtly heartbreaking performance that is Contagion’s MVP. There is nothing flashy about this performance, right up until its final scene, and that is precisely why it works so well.
Soderbergh has become one of Hollywood’s heavy hitters among directors, and yet somehow I think, at times he is underrated. Here is a first rate thriller made with intelligence, that hits all the right notes. There are few filmmakers who could pull this movie off as well as Soderbergh does.