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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: Contagion (2011)

* * *

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a frightening film - not because of the virus that sweeps across the planet, seemingly unstoppable, but because of how it portrays society as little more than a thin veneer easily dismantled in a few quick steps. The almost apocalyptic vision of chaos and destruction that ensues when desperation and greed set in as a population becomes increasingly distrustful of the government's ability and desire to help them, is thought-provoking and skillfully rendered. While the film as a whole is not quite as strong as this particular element, it is ultimately an effective thriller, well-crafted and excellently acted by a cast packed with great actors.

Like the virus it depicts, Contagion is designed to leap from host to host, branching out into many different storylines, each connected back to the same root. It begins with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), returning to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong. She's already coming down with something during her layover in Chicago and by the time she arrives home, she's severely ill. As her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), watches with shock, she collapses on the floor in a seizure and shortly after she's rushed to the hospital she's pronounced dead, the exact cause unknown. The doctors have never seen anything like what's claimed her life and by the time Mitch gets home, his stepson has succumbed to the illness as well. In other parts of the world, other people have died of something which seems similar. The CDC and WHO attempt to get out in front of the virus, a difficult task considering that they can't even definitively nail down what they're dealing with. In the States the fort is held down by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Erin Meers (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), while Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) heads to Hong Kong to try to find the virus' ground zero. Meanwhile, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a conspiracy theorist/blogger, uses his platform to claim that governments, in league with pharmaceutical companies, are keeping the truth from the general public and whipping his followers into a frenzy.

As the virus continues to spread, the world goes into a kind of lockdown. Entire cities are quarantined, armed guards blocking passage over borders. Krumwiede uses his blog to expound his theories that the government has found a cure for the virus and is hoarding it for the exclusive use of government officials and their families while the rest of the population suffers. He claims to have found a homeopathic cure, which results in rioting at pharmacies that quickly spreads elsewhere. Soon enough cities are reduced to shadows of themselves, crime and anarchy ruling the streets as government infrastructure is gradually shut down by the crisis and resulting lack of manpower. While Mitch struggles to keep his daughter safe during the period of quarantine, Dr. Mears succumbs to the illness while working in the field, Dr. Cheever finds himself embroiled in scandal after Krumwiede reveals evidence that Cheever tipped off his girlfriend so that she could flee Chicago before escape routes could be shut off, and Dr. Orantes is kidnapped and held hostage for the vaccine - which Dr. Hextall is working round the clock to produce.

Written by Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Soderbergh's underrated The Informant! as well as this year's Side Effects), Contagion shifts easily between its many characters and settings, using the spread of a virus as a sort of blueprint for expanding its narrative through multiple points of view. The "contagion" of the title refers literally to the virus, but also to the way that information, fear and suspicion spread, intensifying the crisis and bringing it to the tipping point. The film is very strong in this aspect, watching as the situation grows bigger and bigger and creating a feeling of a train flying off the tracks and the inevitability of mass destruction. However, while Contagion is quite strong from a narrative perspective, it falters when it comes to characterization. By virtue of how far the story is spread, none of the characters is really wholly developed (Cotillard, in particular, gets short shrift in this respect, disappearing for most of the story) and the film relies heavily on its actors to fill in the blanks. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. Despite Law's considerable skill as an actor, Krumwiede never really becomes more than one-dimensional villain, a human face for what would otherwise be an invisible antagonist, and Cotillard is wasted in a role that requires little of her (though she is very good whenever she appears onscreen).

All that being said, Contagion is ultimately a very effective film, particularly as it builds. Soderbergh is a masterful storyteller and the film is definitely a triumph of mood, crafting a palpable sense of hysteria as the virus continues to spread quickly, while the science progresses far more slowly. In a sense, society itself becomes the protagonist, enjoying the fully formed narrative arc of crisis, struggle, and eventual triumph, while the human characters become supplements to that thread. To be sure, this makes for a rather cold and clinical film (the death toll is massive, but while the sense of panic is strong throughout, the sense of despair and loss is far more fleeting and occasional), but it does work as a "big picture" story.

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