by Corinne Rizzo
For a film so packed with disturbing content, Contagion is an awfully quiet display of events. Everything from the colors on the screen to the music and dialogue, this film is just a somber and quiet depiction of the spread of what eventually becomes a SARS like epidemic, a drastically contagious virus that seems to induce comas and seizures on the affected.
Unlike many films of contraction, Contagion lacked that sense of panic one felt during Outbreak or 28 Days Later. The skilled and mature cast of characters lends the film a contained sense of control. Each actor in his or her role is wholly believable and to the viewer entirely professional. Here’s an idea of who we are dealing with here:
Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Lawrence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eliot Gould and Demetri Martin (of all people).
Now if you’re anywhere near my age, you watched Matt Damon play Will Hunting and sort of even swooned after him, if that’s your thing. We saw Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaums and laughed at her cynicism, Kate Winslet—best known for Titantic and the list goes on to Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. If Contagion had anything working for it, it was its cast, as a film on this subject matter has long been a dead horse beaten.
And that is where Contagion is different. It begins with Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returning from some corporate event in Hong Kong, which seems a bit cliché considering the past American paranoia from things like bird flu or H1N1, but the film isn’t so quick to place blame anywhere entirely. In fact, a web is created between the affected persons and the range of distance between the infected is wide. Suddenly, a mystery is being woven and it’s almost undetectable that you’re working toward the solution, as the film takes a drastic diversion from discovering the origin of the disease and containing and curing it.
The web of the infected begins with Paltrow’s character, or so that is where the viewer is introduced to the illness. The film takes the viewer home to Minneapolis where Emhoff calls home. At the same time the virus goes (no pun intended) viral by ways of a character played by Jude Law, Alan Krumwiede, a free lance journalist/blogger bent on exposing what he believes is the truth about anything, no focusing on the virus and it’s cure.
What’s interesting about the film and what makes it different from a plethora of other movies based on epidemic is that Contagion spreads no real panic among the audience. Sure, the audience is aware of the severity of the disease at hand. Within hours of contraction, the illness seems to take entire families down. But, as aforementioned, there is a quiet sense of survival among the main characters. Those who fall victim understand that they took the risk in the first place. Those who watched their loved ones succumb didn’t understand, but still never tried to.
For instance Mitch Emhoff (Damon) finds that he is immune to the virus and works silently and diligently to keep him and his daughter from demise.
As the film progresses we see Erin Mears struggle with her contraction, but handles it with dignity and understanding when, despite her status among the government, she learns that being airlifted is a waste of government resources.
The dignified sense of survival is what creates this quiet feeling among Contagion and it is clear to the viewer that the cast, well chosen and well played, are responsible for that feeling as each cast member is one in good standing with the Academy and moviegoers alike.
A viewer might enter the theater ready for a gory mess of death and mass graves and while death and mass graves are a sure part of the film, it is not those scenes which stick with the audience. It is scenes like a gnarly autopsy of Paltrow’s character followed by a classic line between the two examiners, “Should we call someone?” says one hazmat suited examiner. “Call everyone,” proclaims the other.
The film’s story unfolds between many different scenarios and that is where the viewer becomes distracted. Instead of asking ourselves about the origin of the disease, we find ourselves deep in the discovery of hard working biologists trying to cure it or the lives of those trying to avoid it. The audience understands that the primary question was that of origin, but the film leads us on such a chase that it’s easy to feel caught off guard in the last two minutes when everything changes.
The history of the disease, of the travelers and the scientists unfolds before the viewers eyes and before the audience knows it, the credits are rolling. And the unraveling is just as calm and quiet as the onset of disease.
There is a lot that happens in the film, but keeping ears and eyes open, Soderbergh keeps the audience informed and interested without the gore and total societal breakdown involved in a good portion of other epidemic based films. Granted, there are moments of pillaging and anarchy and downright human survival bullshit that makes a viewer want to yell “that doesn’t help the situation, assholes!” it’s just muted and the viewer is put a distance that is almost voyeuristic.
Top Five Reasons to See Contagion:
1) Demetri Martin plays a scientist!
2) Eliot Gould’s character rocks this line, “Blogging is not reporting, it is graffiti with punctuation.”
3) You get to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s cranium sawed off.
4) You’ll never guess the combination of crap that has to happen to incubate such a disease.
5) The tagline “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone,” is badass.