Contagion (2011, Soderbergh)
You know nobody is safe when even Hollywood’s biggest A-list thespians are dropping dead. In Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ latest collaboration, virus film Contagion, the element of human contact is the source of fear. In a time when people should theoretically be coming together to help each other, this scenario pushes humanity apart. Contagion is not interested in the sentimental or the personal; that can be left for the majority of this ‘disaster’-like brand of filmmaking. Soderbergh hauntingly and clinically delivers a film about process that juxtaposes the constant forward-motion of the virus and the apparent helplessness of civilization at its mercy.
Contagion takes a cue from other multi-narrative films including Soderbergh’s own Traffic, by tracking the virus’ impact via assorted characters and storylines. The only thing connecting these people is the virus, as you see how it affects them and the part they play in attempting to live and contain, identify, cure, or even propagate hysteria amidst the pandemic. Among them is a father (Matt Damon) from Minneapolis whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the virus’ first victim immediately followed by their son. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention sends Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer to Minneapolis to investigate and contain the outbreak. CDC scientist Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) attempts to define the virus and thus a possible antidote. Using his influence to amplified hysteria, Alan Krumweide (Jude Law) claims to know the cure, resulting in riots for a pharmaceutical product known as forsythia. Marion Cotillard plays a WHO epidemiologist who goes to Hong Kong to track the virus’ possible origins.
These are only some of the characters; beyond the star power of the film, it is a fun time seeing people such as John Hawkes, Josie Ho, Demetri Martin, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould and Enrico Colantoni pop in for a spell.
Instead of using the virus as a background or excuse to explore interpersonal family dynamics, Contagion does the opposite. Its style and focus creepily align themselves with the virus. Character development is essentially non-existent here because, realistically, it would and should be all about the virus. The hyper-realism approach makes the film feel eerily conceivable and thus, unnerving.
When taken individually, the stories do not resonate. They are not meant to. Most multi-narrative storylines are bound together by theme and coincidence, where they mean something together but could theoretically function as their own coherent story. The storylines in Contagion are bound together by the virus. It is a formal treatment and must be taken as a whole. Characters drop in and out unexpectedly with an inconsistency in rhyme or rhythm. This feels natural; the characters do not feel too manipulated by a pressure to entirely follow through on each thread.
It may not be an issue for the threads of the film to work individually, but it is a problem if they cannot work as part of the ‘big picture’. Marion Cotillard’s storyline is dead on arrival because it does not feel consequential enough. Did it really have to be there? While her final scene sticks, it would have meant a lot more had her previous scenes been more compelling and of value both within the entire framework and on its own.
Too much time is spent with Damon’s onscreen daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron). It allows for the perception of her father’s grieving, but mostly it fails in its humanistic excuse of a portrayal of an inside look at the average citizen’s ordeal. Her scenes with Damon work well; anything by herself feels like a waste of precious time for an ambitious film that only clocks in at 100 minutes. We could have gotten more from Damon’s character with those minutes.
The film takes up too much time tidying up towards the end and undoes some of the controlled disorder that came before. It gets itself back though, ending with a sequence showing the origin of the virus that remains distressing in its mundaneness.
Some are up-in-arms about the nefarious blogger played by Jude Law. His storyline has been the individual thread provoking the most discussion. At first, I had an assumption that his story would be about the effort to enact change where it is so desperately needed, but even with the tools of social media at his fingertips, he is unable to transform the situation. Oh boy was I wrong. His name is Alan Krumwiede; he sounds like a villain out of a Roald Dahl book. He comes complete with snaggletooth, a smarmy walk and a constant spouting of conspiracy theory drivel. He is the only character here invoking active damage to everyone around him. He is a commentary on the revelation that, with the internet, anyone can have influence. In a pandemic scenario, the internet would be a major player in the spreading of false information, rumor, fear, panic and paranoia, surely invoking mass hysteria. In this way, Burns’ commentary is shrewd; for all the good that technology does allows for the people in Contagion, all it takes is one person and some trusting and desperate people to counteract the positive.
It is the character of Krumweide that elicits objection and why not? He represents blogging and social media, and it’s a pretty sad sight. Caricature, broad generalizations and reductive problems aside, Law’s scenes were the most engaging to take part in. It is a joy to watch Law reap in the sleaze and the mannerisms. Burns uses him to poke fun at the kind of grandstanding we come to expect in film speeches. It feels purposely overt from costuming, makeup and dialogue. He is the most conversational element of Contagion, and thus the most stimulating.
This is some of the best editing and cinematography of the year. Soderbergh’s camerawork, under the moniker Peter Andrews, feels like a petri dish. It feels both sterile and microscopically infected in its naturally bleak tones. The film is shot and edited in a brutally matter-of-fact manner. Stephen Mirrione is largely responsible for the audience’s discomfort as shots showing the minutiae of everyday human contact and ordinary objects acquire deadly connotation. Mirrione’s smartly placed edits allow him to depict death as no-nonsense in its being.
Contagion is admirably to-the-point; all about process in content and all about presentation in form. It wastes little time, as if consciously attempting to keep up with the virus’ life cycle. It is clear by now that it is a film that unnerves because our recognition of its possibility. Contagion never approaches hopelessness; to the contrary, but it does recognize our strengths and weaknesses as a grouped people. Amidst all the seizures, bodies, autopsies, riots and blame, it’s the plausibility that impacts us most. Kate Winslet’s speech about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is the scariest thing you will see in a film all year.