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Contagion Review

contagion-movie-jennifer-ehle
RATING:
(4 STARS)

By staying away from the familiar conventions of most thrillers, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion manages to reach a level of believability and natural tension that I thought impossible out of a film like this. There are no chases, nor are there any heroes and villains. In fact, the characters in Contagion take a back seat to the situation in which they find themselves in. Really, the film is a procedural—a diary from multiple perspectives of what might happen should a virus bring the world to its knees. And for its unique perspective, its outstanding writing and directing, and some of the most genuine thrills I’ve experienced in a theater recently, it earns a spot among 2011’s elite films.

The film begins on Day 2 of the outbreak with Beth Emhoff’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) trip from Hong Kong to Chicago to her home in Minneapolis. She’s sick from the moment we’re introduced to her, yet the extent of her illness is unclear to her and her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon). Within a few days, however, Beth and her son are dead, as are a number of others around the world, and the cause is unclear. Once the news of these mysterious illnesses gets out, government officials start investigating. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is head of the CDC and sends a team, lead by Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) into Minneapolis to track down Mitch and try to maintain order. Meanwhile, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) begins trying to figure out what the disease is, how it works, and how they might be able to protect the public from it. And at the WHO, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) heads to Hong Kong, where the disease is believed to have originated.

The film is very Traffic-esque in that most of these characters never cross paths with each other. You might think then that their stories would be unfocused, but that’s far from the case. The screenplay, courtesy of Scott Z. Burns, is incredibly smart and very ambitious, but it never tries to do too much. A big reason why Contagion works is because Burns and Soderbergh keep you at a distance. Many of these characters will die, so there’s no reason to know any more about them than you have to. And more importantly, each is on hand simply to show a different aspect of this massive disaster. So when one person breaks down and cries, we aren’t meant to care. Nor are we meant to care when another character dies. We simply observe it as another event or reaction in an enormous web, and at the center of this web is the virus—the film’s main character.

All that said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good performances to be found. Winslet, Fishburne, Damon are all great. Jude Law gets to chew on some scenery as a venom-spewing blogger—sort of a Julian Assange/Glenn Beck hybrid (with a snaggletooth!). The film just isn’t really an actor’s movie. Instead, it’s a director’s and screenwriter’s showcase (and apparently a composer’s showcase as well because Cliff Martinez’s score is the year’s best so far).

In addition to being well-composed and intellectually stimulating, the film is also damn scary. Soderbergh isn’t afraid to knock off an Oscar-winner or two, but beyond that, there are moments in the film that will make you squirm in your seat. The first 10-15 minutes are essentially a long montage of people coughing and touching things they shouldn’t. Coupled with the captions stating how many million people live in the various metropolitan areas were the action takes place, these are truly frightening shots. You know where the film is going, so something as seemingly harmless as a little boy pushing open a door feels ominous.

Would if I could find something to complain about here, but I thought this film was close to perfect. It lands in this magic sweet spot between smart, thrilling, and fun. It also gets under your skin and stays there. So be warned: You’ll be aware of every cough and sneeze in your vicinity for days.

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