MOVIE REVIEW Contagion 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/PopcornReel.com
Thursday, September 8,
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
"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
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.
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