One touch. One sneeze. One cough.
That’s all it takes for a lethal epidemic to spread across the planet, in today’s age of cross continental travel, overpopulation, and culture of intrapersonal contact. That’s also the basis of the latest film from auteur and on-again off-again soon-to-be retiree Steven Soderbergh. Entitled Contagion, the film is the director’s first true blue attempt at a horror/thriller picture, and proves once again that it takes a one of a kind filmmaker to make a one of a kind thriller.
Contagion, much in the vein of fellow Soderbergh films like Traffic or even, to a much more contained extent (in that throughout the single narrative you follow several side stories), the Ocean’s films, follows multiple storylines. A husband and father losing his wife and stepson all while trying to save his daughter; a scientist kidnapped for a vaccine ransom; a doctor who becomes ill with the disease, and many other stories are looked at here, all of which don’t truly connect other than in the most broad scheme of things. However, what Soderbergh is able to do here is make a film with a seemingly scatterbrained story structure not only seem well organized, but absolutely enthralling. And also absolutely terrifying.
Soderbergh’s Contagion is at its most potent when the filmmaker allows himself to really step out of his comfort zone, whatever that may be. Marked by the occasional tracking shot or snap focus, Contagion is an otherwise subtly directed film, with some of the most luscious cinematography you’ll see all year. The hyper clear visuals make the terror on screen, of which there is much, all of it bluntly and brutally shot, seem even more visceral, and even more troubling. He’s not shying away from a single aspect in Contagion, be it the brutal nature of, well, human nature, or the fact that even something as human as burying your dead is jettisoned when fear comes into the picture. Simply put, Soderbergh is crafting a gorgeous pile of terror, and shoving the audience’s face directly in its core.
And then there is the cast. What a cast.
A true ensemble picture, the film is spearheaded by names like Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Elliot Gould and even Demetri Martin, all of whom give fine performances, but are also part of the film’s major issue. While each narrative arch feels real and well organized, the fact that the film clocks in at just around 100 minutes, makes it one that feels a bit unfocused. Damon and Paltrow are the true stars here, both giving fine, if wasted, turns as a husband and wife team, particularly the former, who gives the film its only true emotional core. Fishburne is fine, if a bit one note, as is Hawkes, who share a small story, that feels wholly forced. Law’s fame hungry blogger is iconoclastic, but marks an interesting bit of commentary on the contagion-like state that is fear building rumor mongering, particularly in today’s post-9/11, and Iraq War filled world. Finally, arguably the biggest name here, Winslet, is ultimately given the least to do, and really doesn’t seem to fit well, except marking yet another small emotional moment. These are fine performances, but in the grand scheme of things, they don’t quite seem to work well when all smashed together. Kind of like people on a crowded bus.
That said, that is about where the flaws start, and subsequently stop. The score is breathtaking, marking yet another great turn from composer Cliff Martinez who also penned the neon-fume fever dream that was the Drive soundtrack, and also the film is put together with an assured hand from editor Stephen Mirrione, who not only has a ton to work with, but uses everything to its highest potential. With Soderbergh on as the film’s producer and DP as well, this is truly a work of an auteur just having fun with a genre he hasn’t had a chance to explore.
Overall, Contagion is a real oddity. With a quite dense narrative featuring a cavalcade of storylines, Soderbergh’s thriller feels too dense for its own good narratively, but just the right amount of intellectual depth. An intriguing commentary on what would happen if fear became the biggest player on the world stage, Contagion is a breathtaking film that is both surreally beautiful, and almost too brutally real for its, or the viewer’s, own good. Not a perfect film, more messes should be this damn good.