Contagion Review

By Michael Coe- 11/09
More by Michael Coe

NEIRAD enilno edition

The first thing the audience hears in Contagion is Gwenyth Paltrow’s cough against a darkened screen. It’s a noise that we’re all familiar with, but the stuttering nature of it, coupled with the vague knowledge of what’s to come, induces the first in a long series of hair-raising chills. Paltrow’s sickly face soon appears and a red subtitle reads, “Day 2”. It’s an effective little trick, letting the audience know that the epidemic has already started and is beyond stopping, and it’s that kind of eerie cleverness that consistently elevates Contagion from typical disaster movie to phenomenal mood piece.
After Paltrow (and by extension, the disease) boards her flight back home to the unsuspecting US, Contagion kicks into a montage of the first victims of the mysterious virus. It’s a phenomenal opening sequence: anonymous people around the world tug at their sweaty clothes, clearly descending into feverish desperation while a spiky analog soundtrack screeches and swirls madly in the background like a hoard of flies. The camera follows every surface they touch, letting the viewer see the frequency and danger of each little innocent quotidian contact. This technique is used throughout the film to a fantastically creepy effect; I can guarantee you that no one who watches the opening montage won’t wash his or her hands after leaving the theater.
From there Contagion launches into action and introduces a multitude of plot lines with a staggeringly star-studded cast (this movie is essentially Valentine’s Day with seizures and death). There’s Mitch’s (Matt Damon’s) plotline, which kicks off tragically with the death of his wife Beth (Paltrow) and son in the same night from the disease she brought home from her trip to Hong Kong. George Lucas once said of grabbing the audience’s attention, “show them a kitten, then wring its neck”- when Mitch picks up his adorable sniffling son from the school’s nurse’s office, the inevitability of the tragedy is heartbreaking and effective. Mitch is miraculously immune to the disease (which he didn’t seem to find as cool as I did) and is left for the rest of the movie to care for his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and protect her from infection. Damon plays his role with plenty of subtlety, almost to a fault (his reactions to his wife and son’s deaths are a bit underplayed) but his performance eventually feels at home in the intensely minimalist film.
Next up there are the adventures of Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a highly regarded government doctor who works hand in hand with other scientists and doctors like Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Ally Hextal (Jennifer Ehle) to try and stop the spread of the disease while maintaining a sense of calm over a dying nation (if it sounds impossible, it’s because it is). Like many of the performances in this film, Fishburne’s is a bit bland. But his two allies in his quest, Ehle and Winslet, are excellent. The former plays the brilliant ambitious doctor racing to find a vaccine, the latter plays a doctor on the streets attempting to set up quarantines and help the sick. Ehle is great in an archetypal role (brilliant-brave-doctor-hero) but it’s Winslet who steals the show with a touchingly human performance of an ultimately tragic character.
Fishburne and friends face another enemy besides the virus, in the form of pot-stirring snaggle-toothed blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). He pops up everywhere making trouble for everyone, claiming (falsely) that he’s found the cure to the disease in a miracle drug called Forsythia and that the government is intentionally keeping the disease alive for business reasons. Law is entertaining enough, but his character is a bit perplexing in his boat-rocking Puck-ness. He’s clearly the villain, stoking the fires of panic, but what is his motivation? It’s never made entirely clear.
The final few plotlines are far less interesting. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is sent abroad to help in China but is kidnapped by Sun Feng (Chin Han, who most people will probably know as the guy from The Dark Knight that the Joker burns on a pile of money) in order for his village to receive vaccinations before everyone else. It’s a dull plot that hardly gets any screen time and is hardly resolved at the end. Elsewhere government officials like Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston) try and do damage control for the panicky people of America, a vigilante doctor (Elliot Gould) grows samples of the virus, and Demetri Martin is inexplicably a straight-faced doctor responsible for perhaps the most disgusting onscreen autopsy of all time.
If you think 5-plus plotlines sounds like a bit much, you’d be right. Contagion does suffer from overpopulation, and as so often happens in these kinds of movies, the characters never develop or truly endear themselves to the viewer. As a result, it’s hard to really care about the survival of any of the characters (besides maybe Mitch and his daughter), and the movie does suffer slightly as a result (rule #1 of scary movies and thrillers: the viewer has to be sympathetic to the characters in danger).

Yet, Contagion is not a character drama, it’s a stylistic exercise, and the style is remarkable. This movie is about mood, and director Steven Soderbergh brings the mood and more. The shots in this film are framed in a chilly Kubrickian style and several memorable images linger in the viewer’s mind after the film is over: a riotous mob smashing the window of a pharmacy; a long tracking shot of a soldier cruising down a deserted highway; and of course, the chilling stills of abandoned airports and streets.

A voiceover narration is used throughout and reads like a news broadcast, but the voice speaking is low, ominous, and anonymous, with more in common with the unknown narrator of The Virgin Suicides than some panicky newscaster. And the score of course, is flawless and powerful. All stinging synthesizers and tribal drums, it sounds exactly like the kind of music a virus would write if it could, and elevates every scene to new emotional heights.
As mentioned earlier, Contagion is also an effective “make you think” movie. The whole concept is distressingly realistic and is sure to promote discussion among people who’ve seen it. Winslet’s Dr. Mears mentions that the average person “touches their face 3-5 times every waking minute”- coupled with the movie’s emphasis on how easily a sick person can come into contact with a commonly touched surface, the fact is chilling. The mass hysteria that follows the epidemic is also intense and realistic. Streets are abandoned and supermarkets are looted. In a particularly heart-pounding scene in the film, Mitch sees flashes from his neighbor’s house and watches two armed and masked men running out the front door, clearly having just committed murder. The next day he steals a shotgun to protect himself. The rate at which people turn to animals in this movie is fast, but it never feels too fast.
I honestly can’t recommend Contagion enough (unless you’re a germaphobe in which case, stay as far away from this movie as possible). It’s the kind of movie that makes you think, makes you feel, and most of all, freaks you out. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it, and I personally think it may be one of Soderbergh’s best films to date. Go out and watch Contagion. And don’t forget to wash your hands.