It’s all in a touch — love, rage, suffering and happiness are all defined by our proximity to one another. Even a soldier a thousand miles away staring at a screen that a drone projects back to him needs to press a key to make an insurgent disappear. Steven Soderbergh’s fitfully disturbing and fully realized Contagion smartly presupposes — as history has shown — that we are more than capable of self-destruction. Teaming with his “The Informant!” writer Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh delivers a propulsive and genuinely unsettling picture like this author hasn’t seen in years.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong with flu symptoms in tow. In the course of little more than a day, she has a seizure, is rushed to a hospital by husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Her death acts as a narrative catalyst for the spread of an unpredictable and vicious viral strain that soon claims several other victims and then ramps up the death toll as society struggles against an inevitable collapse. The opening minutes, punctuated by a Cliff Martinez score (one of the year’s best), are an introduction for the deep-seated terror that is this film’s bread and butter. Every infected person is a vessel for the virus and everything they touch, sneeze or cough on will harbor it. As a captive audience, we are relegated to watch as each innocent action sets up a mine for a stranger to step on. Once the film reveals the strength of the virus and the speed of its spread, simple human contact is pregnant with tension.
Burns’ script alternates between civilians, government agencies, and disease prevention/control facilities in the US and abroad — the US gets most of the screentime, with Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) dispatching Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) in an attempt to first classify and control, and then survive the infection. Meanwhile, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), an epidemiologist, pours over hours of footage from a Hong Kong casino in order to identify how the late Beth Emhoff spread the infection. As the epidemic grips the world and death tolls accelerate, her Chinese colleagues may have a different idea for how to curb the dying.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, conspiracy theory blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) maintains that a homeopathic remedy can cure the disease and claims the government has been withholding this information. While Alan is one of the borderline genre musts for a disaster film, Law carries his paranoid torch with pride and Contagion smartly explores the dangers of a single man who can broadcast to the world at large. We return to Mitch in Minnesota toward the tail end of the movie and while the resolution is somewhat mild given the chaos that unfolds midway, it does feature one of the best scenes of the year, a brief moment of happiness that underlines how the world will now cope with the fallout.
It would be remiss not to mention Jennifer Ehle, whose performance as Dr. Ally Hextall in a way reflects the work ethic this writer would imagine everyone brought to the production — as a doctor under Fishburne’s Cheever, she immerses herself into work, striving to find a vaccine as precious days tick away. Ehle slowly lets us peak into the head of this immensely brave woman, and a late scene between Hextall and her father is understated and moving. Some might accuse Contagion of being ‘cold’ or uncaring towards its cast, concerned only with moving the story forward. This simply isn’t true; the emotion is there, it’s just muted as we come to realize fearfully that these men and women — with whom we’ve gotten to know briefly — are just numbers, bodies that no funeral home wants to take and we may have run out of body bags for.
Well researched and supplemented by an extraordinary gathering of talents, Contagion is a standout ensemble thriller that exemplifies Soderbergh is at the top of his game before a much-ballyhooed will-he-won’t-he retirement.