(USA, 105 min)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh, Writ. Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle John Hawkes, Elliot Gould.
Contagion scared the bejeezus outta me. A slight germaphobe, I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer at my desk, in my backpack, and in my car – it is a small phobia, I admit. Anyone who is not already fanatically cautious with germs will undoubtedly succumb to such a malady after seeing Contagion, for the film exploits contemporary outbreaks such as H1N1 and SARS in order to deliver a chilling and intriguing thriller. Contagion had me squirming in my seat for all one hundred and forty-five minutes of its runtime.
Like all rampant outbreaks, Contagion starts with Patient Zero. (This shouldn’t spoil anything for anyone who has seen the trailer.) Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) waits for her plane in a Hong Kong airport. She looks a bit pasty, but that could simply be the overhead fluorescent light. As Beth boards her flight back to America, Contagion cuts to various other travellers in some form of distress: a man has a coughing fit; a woman is found dead on a hotel room floor. The symptoms of Contagion reveal themselves quickly when Beth succumbs to the illness within four days.
Unable to process Beth’s rapid downturn, her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon) is left in the dark. The case seems especially weird because Mitch is soon quarantined once evidence of the virus appears elsewhere. The lack of info Mitch receives is not, in this case, a complete government conspiracy. The doctors studying the disease have scant hope of defining the disease, which ultimately inhibits the discovery of potential vaccinations.
Working on the case for the Centre of Disease Control are Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Ally Hexall (Jennifer Ehle). Both doctors are dedicated workaholics, but they simply cannot keep up with the spread of the disease. Neither can their woman in the field, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who goes into the epicentre of the disease in order to mine from Mitch Beth’s potential contacts, and to subsequently follow the spread. Working on the other side of the globe for the WHO is Dr. Leonora Orantes, an epidemiologist who tracks Beth’s path from its Shanghai origins. Rounding out the threads of investigation is Alan (Jude Law), a muckraking Blogger who thinks the efforts of Dr. Cheever et al are all a big hoax from which pharmaceutical corporations will profit.
Contagion keeps an aura of suspense during the outbreaks by not spreading the multiple threads of its narrative too thin. Each storyline offers a potent ambiguity with how these characters deal with the epidemic, but the shards of one thread frequently fill in holes in some of the others, so Contagion remains a gripping investigation throughout. The suspense of Contagion is accentuated most strongly by the film’s abilities to surprise and to defy Hollywood conventions. When screenwriter Scott Z. Burns bumps off Gwyneth Paltrow within the first few minutes, Contagion shows that none of the A-listers is immune from the disease, and the film teases by withholding updates on some of the characters for long bouts of time.
As each of the investigators work to fight the virus – and some to stay alive – Contagion amounts to a complex, but incredibly entertaining guessing game. In some cases, the stories are left open: rather than seeming like loose ends, though, these stories mostly serve to extend the mystery (or life?) of the disease and they also leave one speculating on the fate of a favourite character.
The whole roster of Contagion is well served by its star-studded ensemble. Even though some of the heavyweights appear only briefly, each delivers a character in whom it’s impossible not to invest. Particularly engaging are Kate Winslet as the earnest, but visibly terrified Dr. Mears and Marion Cotillard as the intuitive and whole-hearted Dr. Orantes. Paltrow also makes the most of her early scenes of terror, and she’s lots of fun in the flashbacks that reveal the spread of the virus through Beth. Of all the Oscar winners and nominees in the ensemble, however, it’s Jennifer Ehle who makes the strongest impression in her many fine scenes with Fishburne (you’ll remember her for playing wife to Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech). Really, though, the cast of Contagion is resistant to faults.
Steven Soderbergh also deserves top marks for delivering a potent allegory on the viral nature of the media and the ensuing mass hysteria that it causes. As the budding festival and awards season demonstrates, healthy stories can turn fatal with a quick diagnosis (a tweet on W.E., for example.) Contagion, however, is one of the smartest and most stylish studio thrillers of the year. It’s one of the year’s stronger films, too, so let’s hope that the strong word on this pic spreads like wildfire.
Contagion opens in wide release Sept. 9 .