Review: Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’ features an all-star cast, smart paranoid script

The last time Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns collaborated, the result was “The Informant!”, a film I quite admire.  I love how the film manages to walk the fine line between silly and honest, somehow seeming to be both at the same time while telling a very strange story overall.  Now, based on the evidence of “Contagion,” their new collaboration, I think it’s safe to say that they can do whatever they want when they’re working together, and I hope this is the beginning of a long relationship.

In other words, Mr. Soderbergh, we do not accept your retirement.  You can knock that talk off right now.

One of the reasons I love Soderbergh is because he’s a great filmmaker who doesn’t feel the need to impose one style on everything he shoots.  Instead, he lets the material dictate what he shoots and how he shoots it, and in the case of “Contagion,” he’s outdone every virus movie I’ve ever seen by making the actual transmission of illness into the main character of his movie.  The script by Burns juggles a fairly sizable ensemble with ease, but the way Soderbergh, working as Peter Andrews, shot the film is a study in tension and paranoia.  It’s incredibly smart stuff on all fronts, and considering how horrible the film made me feel, it is a true pleasure to watch something made this well.

The film opens with Gwyneth Paltrow at an airport, making a call to someone, and it’s obvious that she just cheated on her husband and now she’s heading home.  One little cough during the phone call, though, and the film is off and running, and by the time she gets home, she’s not feeling well.  That escalates quickly, and within days, she’s kicked off an international incident as a mystery strain of influenza spreads, killing almost everyone who comes in contact with it.  The speed with which the movie hustles Paltrow offstage is par for the course here, and the movie marks the single best use of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head since “Se7en”.  Just because you recognize someone, that doesn’t mean they’re safe.  Jumping from storyline to storyline, the movie quickly establishes a dense, novelistic tone, rich with detail and character, working with efficiency in every scene.  Burns is just as good at writing subtext as he is at text, and the film leaves a lot of room for the viewer to have their own reaction to what they’re watching.  Is this character a hero or a jerk?  Is this action right or wrong?  Do the governments react correctly or drop the ball?  It’s all laid out, but with no real strong editorial hand forcing you to feel a certain way about things.  

So often, audiences seem happy to have their movies pre-digested for them, and a film like this could easily have been made to stick it to certain targets.  Instead, we see competent professionals doing their work well.  We see smart people making smart choices.  Things are done right, but the situation keeps getting worse, and without an easy bad guy to point at, there’s no release, no way to just shake it off.  If you show a bad guy making this virus and intentionally releasing it, that gives us a focus for our fear and for our anger, but how angry can you get at a virus doing exactly what it evolved for?  How do you get your hands on something that could be lingering on any surface, hanging in the very air you breathe?  With no bad guy to fight, how can there be a victory?

The cast is great, and I especially liked Matt Damon’s work as Paltrow’s husband, a put-upon normal guy who reacts the way any of us would in this circumstance.  Watching him try to hold his life together in the wake of Patrow’s death is wrenching and there’s no easy target for all the frustration he’s feeling.  I also really liked Jude Law as a sleazy, twitchy paranoid blogger who is sort of right, and that sense of vindication is fascinating to watch play out as things start to go to hell.  I think Law is a very good actor, but he has often been cast in movie star roles because of how he looks, when in fact, I think he’s a weirdo character actor, and his best work comes when that’s how he’s used.  Kate Winslet is strong and commanding in her role as Dr. Erin Mears, a specialist brought in by the CDC and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence FIshburne) to help stop this new disease from spreading.  Winslet is decidedly non-glamorous in the role, and Fishburne has turned the ham down a bit.  Even when people just come in for a few scenes, no one feels like they’re trying to tip the weight of the film in their own favor.  It is a great example of how a huge cast can be properly juggled so that everybody has their moment.  Everybody serves a purpose in illuminating some aspect of how we behave in moments of international crisis.

There’s one part of the film that I don’t think really works, but it’s just a subplot involving Marion Cotillard, and it’s not that it’s bad… I just think it’s the one part of the film that doesn’t really ring true.  Everything else is so well-observed that when one thing rings false, it stands out.  Cotillard does what she’s asked to do, but it’s a matter of not buying the timeline of how things unfold for her.  I also think this is a hard film to wrap up, simply because of the sprawl of the story, but Soderbergh and Burns find the exact right punctuation mark to their story.  I’m curious to see the IMAX presentation of the movie, since I hear Soderbergh was puzzled by the decision at first, until he actually saw the blow-up and lost his mind for it.  I would imagine it’s overwhelming when seen in that format, and with this film, that may actually help.

Here’s how I know “Contagion” is effective.  Since I saw the film, I’ve been hyper-conscious of shaking hands with people, and of touching my face.  I’m not germphobic, but the film makes its case so effectively, does such a good job of tracing the way these things are passed that I now fully understand why that’s a phobia.  I have a friend who runs another website who is, to put it mildly, a freak about this stuff, and I would love to sit behind him for a screening of this and occasionally cough on the back of his head.  I figure he’d be curled up under his seat by about a half-hour in, weeping uncontrollably.  I wouldn’t call “Contagion” a horror film under the normal definitions, but it is terrifying precisely because it is so matter-of-fact.  So often, filmmakers feel the need to pull out a familiar bag of tricks to scare us, but this film stands as proof that you don’t need to resort to cheap jump scares or orchestra stings to scare an audience.  All you have to do is paint a convincing picture of a familiar world gone mad and treat your audience with respect, and “Contagion” delivers completely on that front.  Check this one out.

“Contagion” spreads on September 9, 2011.