Thursday, November 10, 2011

Contagion ***½

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law
Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould
Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston

Contagion opens inside an airport bar where American businesswoman Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), on her way to the States from Hong Kong, sits having a drink and talking on the phone while she waits for a connecting flight. As she hears her flight number being called out she leaves the bar. The camera then focuses on the small bowl of peanuts that sat in front of her. A title card reading "Day 2" appears. With a seemingly innocuous choice of editing, camera positions and additional information (we don't get title cards in real life), Steven Soderbergh sends us down a spiral of fear, the likes of which we rarely see in contemporary cinema.
Once Beth is back in the States, she suddenly falls ill with a strange disease that sends her into a coma and kills her a mere minutes after the movie begins. With this bold move Soderbergh reassures us that for the next two hours, no one will be safe.
Contagion then deals with the discovery, propagation and consequences of this new lethal virus that is transmitted by contact and has no apparent cure. As the virus grows, we meet different characters who deal with it in their part of the world as society around them begins to crumble. Soderbergh also divides them into different aspects of our current world, without making them a too obvious "group". We see the emotional part with  Beth's husband, Mitch (Damon) for example, who has to deal with his wife's sudden death as he must survive in order to support his daughter.
There's also Dr.Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who tries to clear doubts that suggest the new virus might be a bioweapon by sending his colleague Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to investigate. Their stories are more related to bureaucracy and the handling of disasters by local governments which provide the film with eerie echoes of the H1N1 epidemic and the way in which the American government has dealt with events like Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Their storylines are also linked to the scientific community represented by Gould, who plays a genius biology professor and Ehle, who plays Dr. Ally Hextall, a CDC scientist commissioned to find a vaccine.
As the story begins to occupy a more global aspect, we meet Dr. Leonora Orantes, a World Health Organization epidemiologist who is sent to Asia in search of "patient zero". Scenes involving her character are filled with an exotic dread in which we are reminded that despite the world's global union feeling, we are still pretty much on our own. Soderbergh makes her scenes scary and mystifying by recurring to the use of multiple languages which instill a very primal fear in audience members. Is he perhaps suggesting that xenophobia is acceptable under special circumstances?
Other characters include slimy conspiracy theorist/blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law), a down on his luck janitor (Hawkes) who finds himself in the midst of a disease which to him remains incurable due to his lack of money and Aubrey (Lathan), Dr. Cheevers partner who gets involved in a political disaster.
Soderbergh has proved in the past that he's a maverick at handling parallel storylines with unifying, often enlightening, clashes. But while in Traffic he did something a bit more orthodox in terms of dramatic structure, Contagion offers him the chance to do his own hybrid of Nashville and Outrbreak. Those expecting an ultimate message of salvation, or even a unifying climax will come out severely disappointed as Soderbergh makes a case of maintaining the pieces of his mosaic separated.
Their detachment might come off as cold-hearted by usual standards but Soderbergh sees himself as a scientist trying to dissect the various pieces of his experiment (an autopsy scene is done with such straightforwardness that you can't help but feel both revolted and mesmerized). He leaves it to his actors to create flashes of humanity within the hyper-realism of his direction. Cotillard for example brings a worldly charisma (and a serious working woman hairdo) to her scenes, while Ehle becomes a joy to watch as she puts all of her Streep-ian attributes to work as she delights herself with her work discoveries.
Paltrow, who the film sometimes uses as a morality clause, is haunting, as she represents the face of an irresponsible (if only by ignorance) branch of American society and Winslet delivers one of the year's most powerful emotional punches in less than ten scenes.
His insistence to keep the stories from coming together has a remarkable symbolism because we realize that he's trying to contain infection from seeping to his other characters. By maintaining them apart, Soderbergh might be making the film's strongest point which is a questioning of the benefits of globalization.
This is confirmed in the finale which might be a bit facile but still shocks us to our very core by reminding us that by trying to make the world a smaller place, we have also made its decay much easier to obtain. With his expert use of editing, cinematography and sound (there are scenes without dialogues that creep under your skin) Soderbergh creates the kind of movie that transcends genre but becomes effective even within them. The film is scary because it feels possible and its use of scientific fact and borrowing from contemporary history only makes it more valid.
Martin Scorsese said that horror is related to physicality but terror is more related to what we feel, with Contagion Soderbergh might've created one of the most terrifying films of the decade.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

So, it's official then...I'm the only one who doesn't think that Jude Law's character is a complete dick? So glad you liked it, and that you've written a review...but more than you liked it. The cast is great all round, even if Cotillard seems overly aloof - but understandable given her arc,

Jose said...

Ah but he was a dick Andrew! And OMG his tooth, has it always been like that?
Cotillard was divine, I am obsessed with her "real human being" hair and costumes. I'm glad I liked it too. I hadn't seen anything this good in months.