Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Larry Clarke, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Chin Han
Contagion is the scariest movie of the year, and that’s coming from someone with a pension for horror films. Unlike most worldwide disaster movies, Contagion doesn’t sensationalize the issue on a grand scale in an effort to shock the audience, rather it tells the tale via a variety of intimate scenarios, both giving the audience that vast scope, but also putting you right in the middle of the disaster alongside the characters that are fighting through it.
After a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn’t feeling great. She assumes her sore throat and headache stem from jetlag and both she and her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), dismiss her condition until Beth collapses on the kitchen floor. Almost instantaneously, she’s rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead, leaving Mitch a single parent.
An autopsy reveals Beth’s passing wasn’t due to a freak illness, the bird flu, anthrax or anything else this type of situation is usually attributed to, rather a new kind of virus with overwhelmingly powerful effects. In comes Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC to assess the situation and take action. He sends field agent Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minnesota to pinpoint Beth’s whereabouts since she’s contracted the disease to keep it from spreading. Regardless of her efforts, people all around town fall ill, reports pour in of clusters around the country and the world, and a global pandemic ensues.
You know when something big happens and the local news stations put all their resources towards covering it and you end up with a channel reporting on the issue 24/7? You’re basically getting the same report over and over, but you just can’t stop watching. Contagion somewhat recreates that same sensation, albeit with far more originality.
Writer Scott Z. Burns really has his hands full with this one. We’ve got a total of six main characters needing attention, some of which have to handle storylines all on their own. Burns manages to give each scenario due time in the spotlight, while artfully weaving them all together in the background. Well, all but one. The only character that feels misplaced is Marion Cotillard’s Dr. Leonora Orantes. She’s in Hong Kong trying to find the focal point of the pandemic, but then gets swept up in a bit of a thriller. Whereas every other character is consumed by the spread of the virus, her situation becomes a bit too much about the crime, which doesn’t gel with the film as a whole.
The rest of the characters, on the other hand, share an impressively strong through-line. Mitch’s wife is the first case to pop up in the US, bringing the story to Dr. Cheever who calls in Mears to hit the field (bringing us back to Mitch) and Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) to search for a cure at home base. Meanwhile, in addition to the virus, the CDC is also fighting blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who claims the CDC and government are exploiting the current crisis for money and has a large enough readership to create hysteria.
In addition to the writing, the cast deserves a significant amount of praise for they all make their characters seem real, giving the film more of a firsthand feel as opposed to the aforementioned news reports, which are far more one-dimensional. Of the headliners, Damon and Winslet are the most compelling. Winslet’s character’s situation is a bit more condensed than the rest, making it easy to follow, but Damon’s stretches from beginning to end, which does wonders when it comes to making the audience feel invested from start to finish.
There are also two names that don’t appear on the poster that are particularly commendable, Ehle and newcomer Anna Jacob-Heron. Ehle’s Dr. Hextall, is incredibly bright and rather than flaunt her knowhow via meaningless medical jargon, Burns and Ehle bring her down to earth through entirely relatable dialogue and a subdued and honest performance. Ehle has a very natural onscreen presence, letting the audience connect to her character almost instantaneously. As for Jacob-Heron, keep an eye on this one because this young actress is responsible for some of Contagion’s most powerful moments. She steps in as Damon’s daughter, and the two share a tremendous amount of chemistry. But Jacob-Heron doesn’t just use her big name co-star as a crutch; she also pulls off some particularly honest emotion with a more minimal character, her boyfriend, Andrew (Brian J. O’Donnell).
And, of course, there’s director Steven Soderbergh who has a very heavy hand on this piece, but appropriately so. We get disaster movies on a regular basis and have seen our fair share of films based on virus outbreaks, too, so it’s Soderbergh’s unique style that really helps set Contagion apart. His camera doesn’t move very much, but the film is packed with intriguing angles, the most notable of which is the vast amount of overhead wide shots which beautifully correlate to the virus’ expansive attack. In terms of tone, Contagion is quite the achievement as Soderbergh is handling a variety of separate stories. This becomes a problem with Cotillard’s scenario, but otherwise, the film is impressively consistent. A big factor in establishing that tone is the score, which primarily consists of a heart pumping electronic beat that not only ups the film’s pace, but boosts the tension, too.
Something that really solidifies Contagion as a successful film is its lasting impact. This isn’t an experience you can easily put behind you, both in terms of the story as a whole and the more intimate elements. You become so invested in these characters, it’s impossible not to wonder where they’ll go next and then, of course, the ease with which a pandemic like this could occur is just incredibly disconcerting. Contagion is well worth your money as well as the cost of the case of hand sanitizer you’ll feel the need to buy when it’s over.