Thursday, September 8, 2011

Don't Panic. Wash Your Hands. And Cover Your Mouth.

Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever and Jennifer Ehle as Dr. Ally Hextall in Steven Soderbergh's thriller "Contagion". 
Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, September 8
, 2011

Before we see anything in Steven Soderbergh's utterly convincing and horrifying new thriller "Contagion", we hear a cough.  Some in the audience will laugh and others will actually cough.  It's that psychosomatic (and overall psychological effect) that will hook those watching this gripping film about a contagious unknown virus that suddenly ravages near half the global population in a matter of days.

Mr. Soderbergh weaves six stories in eight international cities in a visual style and tempo akin to his Oscar-winning 2000 film "Traffic" with a new RED digital video camera and another all-star ensemble cast.  Laurence Fishburne presides as Dr. Ellis Cheever of the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta.  He is the calming voice of reason as panic -- the greatest terror in this often scary and disturbing film -- spreads faster than the virus.  Dr. Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to Minnesota to trace and investigate an initial case of the virus, which is contracted by touch, sneeze and other airborne ways.  Before Dr. Mears touches down in the North Country there will be 50 new virus cases in Macau and Hong Kong, where the film starts.

"Contagion" has among its other stories a World Health Organization doctor played by Marion Cotillard; a San Francisco-based Australian skeptic (Jude Law) who runs a website dedicated to debunking the official government story on anything; a woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a business trip; a man (Chin Han) whose Hong Kong village is fast perishing, and a father (Matt Damon) trying to keep his daughter from contracting the virus.  Jennifer Ehle (pronounced "E-lee") plays a doctor colleague of Dr. Cheever's who tests vaccines to counter the virus, and she is great here -- looking and sounding very much like Meryl Streep -- as a confident, unwavering troubadour as others shrink or employ expedient politics.  

What's so effective about the film is its clinical, understated approach to storytelling.  Mr. Soderbergh executes effortlessly with a well-crafted script by Scott Z. Burns ("The Informant!") and lays back and lets the actors sell this tightly-coiled escalation.  The economy of information delivered by Mr. Burns comes in sharp, succinct beats.  Death.  Virus.  Unknown.  Spreading.  Testing.  Days pass.  Ups.  Downs.  More days pass.  More deaths come.  Many more deaths.  The scientific discussions about the virus are meticulous and well-researched, delivered with precision and dispatch.  The all-too-chilling truth of "Contagion", a more authentic, disquieting film than the melodramatic 1995 hysteria drama "Outbreak", is that the most innocent and well-intended of human behaviors are magnified, and in a pandemic they become lethal, part of a despairing, helpless mess.  We recognize these simple, innocuous everyday behaviors in ourselves, and in "Contagion" they lead to mass tragedy.  Yet to ask us to behave differently from our natures is to ask the impossible.

Yet beneath all of this terror is grandiose, perverse comedy, which the director recognizes that "Contagion" desperately needs.  Discrete swaths of tension-releasing tongue-in-cheek comedy arrive at approximate eight-minute intervals, and when cast members suffer horribly and succumb I couldn't help thinking about why certain actors perished and not others.  You may feel there are morbid, gallows' humor statements that Mr. Soderbergh is making, even if he's all business and wholly straight-ahead in his filmmaking intentions and approach.

Speaking of which, one can make a strong case that aside from the "Ocean's" sequels Mr. Soderbergh never makes the same film twice, even if actors like Mr. Damon and Elliott Gould have appeared in multiple Soderbergh films.  His styles differ from film to film, or at least the styled atmosphere he builds in them does, whether in the bright pastel-colored 1970s-lettering of "The Informant!", a nightmare disguised as comedy; or the isolated, brutish cool and detachment of the New York City in "The Girlfriend Experience"; or the warm, vivid and pulsing landscapes he traverses in his epic "Che"; or the nostalgic black and white 1940s tones of "The Good German".  Even in the documentary "And Everything Is Going Fine" the fragmented clips and journey of Spalding Gray are as clinical and incisive as -- yet distinct from -- "Contagion", a cautionary tale about the dangers of not washing your hands.  (Ironically, I don't remember seeing more than one person in the entire film doing so.)

"Contagion" will fuel the ammunition of obsessive-compulsives everywhere, and make believers of the dirtiest, discourteous and ill-mannered culprits, if only for just under two hours.  I wash my hands every time I enter the home -- it's the first thing I do.  I wash my hands, all told, a dozen times a day, if not more.

Not necessarily unspoken in "Contagion" is a paranoia its characters feed into.  The film's TV news media peddles fear to a degree, and fear is the film's biggest character, fully charged as a weapon by and on all sides.  There's no happy ending in this germ-ridden global blight, just a realistic one.  There's an odd but cheeky B-movie schlock element in "Contagion" in two jarring scenes.  Characters comment drolly about Frankenstein and other assorted creatures.  Each character type is familiar, and tainted.

In "Contagion", an intelligent film which opens at midnight tonight across the U.S. and Canada, Cliff Martinez's superb techno-music score supplements and augments the discomforting experiences with cold, methodical beats of procedure ringing amidst a frightening atmosphere.  I was numbed and enthralled by "Contagion", thoroughly taken with its unwavering and evenly-balanced hand.  When an unexpected moment occurs, the film reveals it not as a detour from other events but as a symbol of human desperation.  We understand why one character behaves this way even if we don't approve.

Mr. Soderbergh's "Contagion" plays so thoroughly on psychology and fear of the known and unknown, but powerfully upon the human instinct for survival, anarchy, adrenaline, and, lack of understanding in a crisis.  "Contagion" thrives because it is extremely realistic and the fictional events it depicts genuine and plausible -- not only because of human catastrophes like the Bubonic Plague or the Spanish Flu (which killed 50 million people in 1918) or the terror attacks of 9/11/01 (the film's release date is two days before the 10-year anniversary) -- but because we know that human beings become their own worst enemy in such extraordinary and grave circumstances.  We are the fear that we are afraid of, and "Contagion" exploits it so very well.

With: Anna Jacoby-Heron, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Larry Clarke, Armin Rohde, Demetri Martin, Chiu Ten Yiou, Daria Stroukous.

"Contagion" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some disturbing content and some language.  The film's duration is one hour and 44 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2011.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW