Film Review: “Contagion”

by Jason LeRoy on September 9, 2011

Jude Law plays a San Francisco blogger in CONTAGION

starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould, Enrico Colantoni, Sanaa Lathan, Bryan Cranston, Anna Jacoby-Heron

written by: Scott Z. Burns

directed by: Steven Soderbergh

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language

Germophobes, agoraphobes, and hypochondriacs will find much to validate their neuroses in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s alarming new thriller. Also validated will be those of us who’ve long suspected that Gwyneth Paltrow would someday play a significant role in the end of humanity as we know it. The consequences of her character’s actions in this film are more than enough to negate her recently revealed 9/11 heroism.

The film opens with Paltrow’s character, Beth, taking a clandestine phone call while traveling from Hong Kong back to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and their children in Minnesota. This will be the last calm moment for quite some time. What follows is a brutal, mesmerizing montage of a mysterious and highly fatal new disease claiming its first wave of victims. Soderbergh – aided considerably by Cliff Martinez’s dissonantly eerie score – masterfully conjures the rhythm of an outbreak, and the film works with the same ruthless efficiency as the disease itself. It is fast-acting and almost laughably easy to catch – even touching the same surface as an infected person will do the trick – and it spreads rapidly across the globe.

While the script (by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh and Damon on The Informant!) has its personal angle with Damon’s character, an average Joe left to protect himself and his teenage daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) in an increasingly nightmarish, dystopian reality, the film’s main focus is on the doctors and diplomats (played by Cotillard, Winslet, Fishburne, Gould, Ehle, and Martin, among others) working round the clock to find a cure while coordinating herculean relief efforts. There is also Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, an extra tooth cruelly applied to one of his front teeth for added British emphasis), a conspiracy-nut video blogger who is based — of course — in San Francisco, captured in all of its drizzling, overcast winter glory.

Despite the absurdly all-star cast, which features no less than three Best Actress Oscar winners and a mini-reunion of the three leads from The Talented Mr. Ripley, the performances are generally incidental. This is a disaster-movie ensemble cast without any scenery-chewing Shelley Winters standouts, although Damon has some nice moments, as does Jennifer Ehle (who appears to be channeling a younger Mary McDonnell). And of course there’s Paltrow’s instant-legend seizure face. Other than that, Soderbergh and his casting director, Carmen Cuba, just seem like they’re showing off.

For Soderbergh, this is not an allegorical disease film; it’s not 28 Days Later. The inclusion of a URL with the phrase, “It’s Not If, But When” at the end of the credits, as well as a list of sources confirming the science of the film, indicate that he’s approaching this subject with at least some degree of seriousness. His filmmaking and storytelling also support this; rather than exaggerating or stylizing the horror with one operatic moment after another, he lets the stark realities of an outbreak speak for themselves. The film has a dispassionate, procedural feel that seems documentary-like at times; rather than lots of scary medical gore, its primary interest is the practical day-to-day response the global community would have to undertake in case an epidemic of this magnitude were to be unleashed.

What provoked this film? Perhaps it was the wave of media-saturated cynicism that followed the anticlimactic conclusion of the H1N1 “swine flu” incident, which is referred to several times in the film. It seems to be saying, “Okay, sure, that wasn’t the big one — but it’s still gonna happen! We’re long overdue!” Regardless of the film’s science, it is captivating and impeccably made, with Soderbergh in full command of his craft. And if you find yourself bored for some reason, just watch the people around you become suddenly self-conscious about touching their faces. Seriously, you may want to sneak a Big Gulp of Purell into this one.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike July 30, 2012 at 5:49 am

I don’t believe that’s an extra tooth applied atop Jude Law’s real one as you suggested. If you look closely those appear to be his real life teeth…grey, gapped and crooked. He has just always worn perfect falsies in the past.

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Alice August 19, 2015 at 11:30 pm

“an extra tooth cruelly applied to one of his front teeth for added British emphasis” British emphasis?! British emphasis?!!! Are you fucking kidding me?! what a stupidity. Yeah, I feel fucking insulted!

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