Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The germaphobic scares in director Steven Soderbergh’s new disease outbreak thriller Contagion emerge within the film’s opening minutes. Before any actors or scenery are seen, the all-black screen is coupled with hacking coughs; moments later, a sickly-looking Gwyneth Paltrow gives way to a shot of peanuts in a jar that Soderbergh lingers on for an uncomfortably long period of time. Right off the bat, Contagion strives to unsettle, not allowing Paltrow’s character to—spoiler alert, though it’s in the trailer—survive through its first act and kicking off with a slickly edited and alarmingly visceral montage of victims in various countries succumbing to the film’s antagonistic disease; one poor bastard’s run-in with a speeding bus in Hong Kong is especially vicious.
For a solid 45 minutes, Contagion roars along with unwavering intensity, skillfully balancing a plethora of character-driven subplots and killing off A-list actors with an impressively un-Hollywood recklessness. Soderbergh’s direction is seamless, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ script is relentless, and the performers—an array of Academy Award winners and nominees—are all spot-on. But then, somewhere in the film’s middle, the momentum falters. Blame it on the overpopulation that the film’s bat-caused disease rapidly diminishes. An example of having too much to do in too short of a time-span, Contagion introduces far too many characters for its own good; as big-name stars die alongside unknown day players, there’s hardly a soul to actually care about. The film has sympathetic roles, but not one character registers beyond surface-level impact.
Being that it’s so well-made from Soderbergh’s end, and nicely acted from all of his many stars, Contagion sustains interest throughout, yet it’s for the filmmaking aspects, not the actual story. And that’s a bad problem for a movie to have when it crams so many storylines into its running time. The lynchpin is the aforementioned Paltrow, who plays Beth Emhoff, a global marketer who acquires a mysterious ailment while visiting Hong Kong and quickly transfers the sickness to everyone around her; once she’s back home in the states, Beth gives off her fatal import to others, including her soon-to-be-dead son. As her husband (Matt Damon) struggles to cope with the tragedies, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a deputy director at the Center for Disease Control, leads the charge against the worldwide epidemic, sending one of his finest doctors (Kate Winslet) across country to conduct field research. That’s no easy task, either; after nearly two months, the universal body-count reaches 26 million.
But wait, there’s plenty more. In the C.D.C.’s laboratories, a pair of docs (Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin) rock Hazmat suits and work toward a possible cure; another doctor (Marion Cotillard), this one working for the World Health Organization, heads straight to Hong Kong to investigate Beth Emhoff’s comings and goings; and causing a major ruckus online is an arrogant and rabblerousing blogger (Jude Law), who fans the mistrusting public’s angers and spreads word of a low-level vaccine that’s yet to be approved by government officials.
Firing conflicts and perspectives off from so many different angles, Contagion never works as an emotionally poignant experience; instead of rooting for anyone to live and weeping whenever someone croaks, we’re simply left to fearfully ponder the movie’s frightening premise. Maybe that was Soderbergh’s intention all along, but surely not from a disconnected, apathetic state. For a film of such wide open spaces and ever-changing, outdoor backgrounds, Contagion ticks by with mounting claustrophobia, forcing viewers to stare at door handles, oh-shit bars on crowded buses, and other frequently touched objects to the point where the characters’ helplessness to avoid illness becomes suffocating. You’ll want to wear thick gloves to the theater; by Contagion’s end, Soderbergh’s use of extended camera-holds on everyday items will leave audience members wishing they could be airlifted out of the multiplex and dropped right into an isolated room.
Had any of the central players been given more room to psychologically develop, Soderbergh’s film might have been a unanimous success. Despite their minimally fleshed-out assignments, several of the actors do manage to rise and shine. Ehle, a British-American talent perhaps most known for last year’s Oscar titan The King’s Speech, breaks out here with strong presence and subtle fragility; Law, afforded the film’s most dynamic part, has a blast playing up the douche blogger’s toxic opportunism (he gloats about his “12 million unique visitors” while earning $4.5 million off of his alarmist website) and straight-up arrogance. He’s also the target of the film’s best line, delivered by Soderbergh movie veteran Elliot Gould: “Blogging is not writing—it’s graffiti with punctuation.” Ouch.
In a fascinating structural choice, Soderbergh withholds Contagion’s most punishing shot for the very end: With composer Cliff Martinez’s pounding score on full blast, the director takes viewers back to the beginning, showing how one unassuming bat and a few pigs destined to be dinner unintentionally brought infection to Paltrow, and, subsequently, the entire world. As the final credits start to roll, Contagion sends you off on a high note; it’s a clever move on Soderbergh’s part, covering the movie’s faults with a conclusive scare.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone