Contagion doesn’t feature insane killers, demons, or haunted houses, but it’s one of the most effective horror films of the year. Walking out of the theater, my audience warily eyed each other, making sure not to touch anyone or anything as we went our separate ways. Steven Soderbergh continues to prove himself as one of the finest directors of ensemble casts working behind the camera today, and his controlled direction coupled with a fascinating script by Scott Z. Burns makes for a hell of a movie. It’s unsettling, but it’s also exceptionally crafted and well-acted, so I have no qualms about recommending it for everyone.
Before the movie came out, many (myself included) wondered what the point of Contagion was: doesn’t it look too similar to every other outbreak movie of the past twenty years? But this film reminded me that the devil is in the details: it’s not only about the subject matter, but how the story is executed, and I’m glad I checked it out. Soderbergh adds all kinds of touches that make the movie stand out, from his shallow focus compositions to an excellent montage showing the spread of the deadly disease across the world. There’s a detached quality here, and the director does a good job of keeping the audience at arm’s length throughout the movie and not falling into the trap of making the movie about any one character over another; the main characters are the disease and the fear it inspires.
The acting is fantastic from everyone involved. Matt Damon sells his character’s emotional breakdowns, Kate Winslet makes a big impact with a smaller part, Laurence Fishburne does some of his best work in years, and Jude Law is fantastic as a renegade blogger searching for the truth. Even Gwyneth Paltrow (who dies in the trailer) does well with the small screen time she has. Tiny performances by Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, and John Hawkes didn’t disappoint, but the standout actress for me (as much as I love Kate Winslet) has to be Jennifer Ehle, who is not a big name yet but certainly should be after this movie. She evokes a young Meryl Streep not only in appearance but in quality in her role as a doctor on a quest to discover the cure for the disease.
Marion Cotillard’s character is the weak link here, but that’s no fault of hers. The script seems to forget about her since she disappears for a huge chunk of the movie – close to 40 minutes, I’d wager – and then when she returns, her motivations have completely changed with a pitiful implication of why we’re supposed to empathize with her climactic decision. This is a script flaw more than an acting complaint, so I just want to reiterate that I had no issues with Cotillard’s performance. Because there are so many characters introduced, and because Soderbergh keeps the audience from fully engaging with any of them (except for maybe Matt Damon and his daughter), this problem feels particularly egregious. But I’ll also reiterate: just because we don’t get to truly know any of these people, that doesn’t mean that Contagion is not a captivating thriller.
Cliff Martinez adds an eerie electronic-based score punctuated with grating feedback noises, subtly adding to the horrific atmosphere Soderbergh creates. Martinez has been doing some good work this year with this and the scores for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (one of my favorite films of 2011) and the Matthew McConaughey flick The Lincoln Lawyer (which I still haven’t seen).
The escalating panic and hysteria that Contagion depicts are perhaps the scariest moments in the film; it’s easy to assume this movie’s cynical view of the world is pretty realistic if such a situation were to occur. The involvement of the internet in breaking news and Jude Law’s character becoming a prophet for people is not outside the realm of believability, nor are the looting, violence, and destruction presented. Burns’ script is captivating, frightening, and well-constructed, and Soderbergh’s take on the material is a perfect visual partnership with the script’s tone. Contagion is not anything that I plan on revisiting any time soon, but that’s not because I didn’t like it: it’s just because everything it suggests is too unnervingly realistic. And that unsettling feeling is the film’s greatest success. Until next time…