The ‘Contagion’ Fever Is Scattered, but Still Catchy
“Contagion” is an effective thriller — it announces its tone without delay and mostly maintains a balance of suspense and drama throughout its 106 minutes. While the film isn’t a completely “ultra realistic” depiction of an outbreak — as suggested by director Steven Soderbergh in an interview — “Contagion” offers genuine thrills that work best without too much scrutiny.
It only takes a cough to set up the suspense. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Beth Emhoff, has just returned from a business trip from Hong Kong with a layover in Chicago. She’s not feeling well, but we know that as the on-screen text pronounces “Day 1,” her cough, at the very least, is going to get much worse.
Soderbergh’s camera work (under the name Peter Andrews) crafts merciless tension by making everyday objects and gestures the common enemy.
While the film starts with Emhoff as the main character, she is merely one virus carrier in a field of endless menace. The peanuts at the bar she touches and the glass she drinks from inflict an equal amount of danger to anyone who comes in contact — and Soderbergh pounds the tangibility of the threat into submission.
It is in the early moments of the film that Soderbergh really hits his stride, building an ominous character out of an unseen virus. Showing scenes of the increasing number of infected interacting with their environment — sneezing, coughing, touching too many things in their path — the film sustains its chilling momentum ruthlessly.
With dependable actors including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishburne manning the boards, Soderbergh is free to conduct his penchant for a multi-narrative plot, as he did with the award-winning “Traffic” (2000).
Shifting between characters, Soderbergh tries to present a fair sense of dread from all sides, but this approach doesn’t always work — some of the characters and their storylines end up being fleshed out more than others.
Damon, as Paltrow’s husband, carries most of the film’s emotional arc, and manages to convince without an un-romanticized sense of dramatic grievances or paranoia. Fishburne, Ehle and Bryan Cranston play officials at the Center for Disease Control who must balance their emotions and professionalism. Cranston, who is mesmerizing in the brilliant TV series “Breaking Bad,” is underused here and mostly succumbs to Fishburne’s compassionate unyieldingness.
But the film doesn’t give Fishburne enough time to develop into a full and rewarding character — his older-brother relationship with Winslet shows promising signs of life, but withers as quickly as it blooms. Likewise, Winslet’s character, an epidemiologist tasked with dealing with bureaucrats, barely takes off, even though the actress makes a valiant effort to add some signs of humanity to her character.
But Soderbergh gains from the abrupt depictions of the characters and their various fates and actions, even if unintentionally. In something of an ironic symbolization, the virus nary gives the characters — and the actors and actresses playing them — a chance to develop. The film’s star is still the deadly mystery virus, no matter how hard the characters try to go beyond their respective roles. Just as a character is about to “breathe,” symbolically speaking, the virus stops them short.
Marion Cotillard plays a World Health Organization epidemiologist who travels to Hong Kong to track down the virus’ origins, then becomes entangled in one the film’s clumsier (though admittedly, believable during a pandemic) moments. But Cotillard’s character is also underdeveloped and unresolved.
Jude Law’s conspiracy theory-minded blogger feels like an unnecessary diversion from the anxiety underlying the story. And Ehle’s one scene outside of the lab feels more compulsory than moving.
Soderbergh’s affinity for dramatic moments does not lend itself to the film’s semi-docudrama style. When two doctors are examining the brain of a virus victim early in the movie and discover its level of carnage, one says, “Oh my God, should I call someone?” The other doctor replies: “Call everyone.” It takes away from the reality of the moment and brings “Contagion” back to movie-land.
Still, “Contagion” has the virus going for it, and paranoia — lots of it. Steadfast acting and engaging camera work make it a thriller that doesn’t scare as much as it wants, but thrills possibly more than it intended.
English with Indonesian subtitles.
Starring Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne