Dir:- Steve Soderbergh
Starr:- Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston
Contagion is one of the strangest mainstream films of the year, and the strangest thing about it is the quiet conventionality of its form. Steve Soderbergh has had a chameleon career behind the camera since he enthralled so many with his most original work, his debut effort sex, lies and videotape. In his most impressive films like Out of Sight, The Limey and The Informant! he seems to be able to fuse together his magpie film geek sensibilities with an irrepressible urge toward formal experimentation. However in ponderous works like the two-part Che biopic, or the sassy star-vehicle Erin Brokovich it is difficult to discern any specific directorial signature amidst the blandly realised dramatic action. Whilst oddities like Schizopolis and the overly-indulgent Full Frontal appear to be nothing more than expensive stylistic exercises stretched a full 90 minutes beyond their interest threshold. Yet despite the wilful randomness of his filmography, Soderbergh is incapable of delivering a visually uninspiring movie (Lars von Trier take note), with even the otherwise atrocious The Good German appearing to be a fairly impressive parody of late-40’s noir thrillers. Once you have acclimatised yourself to Soderbergh’s cinematic universe, where the most important details are all in the surface textures, it is hard to deny that his films at least have a certain consistency in the way that form outweighs narrative, and mood (or atmosphere) trumps both.
Doing away completely with any opening credits Contagion leaps straight into an airport bar, on what, as a scarlet caption kindly tells us, is ‘Day 2’ of an unspecified event. The camera is tightly trained upon the weary expression of Gwyneth Paltrow’s businesswoman Beth Emhoff. She is obviously coming down with something, but much of her pensiveness can also be put down to the illicit affair she has just had with her ex-boyfriend. Answering her mobile phone she shares a brief, coy conversation with her lover and then goes to get her plane home. At this stage Soderbergh goes global, splicing in sequences to do with a young man in Hong Kong, an elderly businessman in Tokyo and a woman in London, all of whom seem to be becoming progressively sicker. Soderbergh’s camera (working as his own DOP under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, as ever) begins to insinuate itself into all of those little points of contact between ourselves and other people. In the blink of an eye the everyday world around us has become a threatening sea of contagions and within ten minutes of the film’s unassuming opening Gwyneth Paltrow is having her head cut open on a mortuary slab.
In essence Contagion is very much a film of the 70’s, riding somewhere between an exploded version of The Cassandra Crossing and a more restrained rendering of The Andromeda Strain. Once Paltrow has been put out of her tapioca-puking misery, Soderbergh drifts between various different plot strands, like a more refined version of the narrative form used in his earlier Oscar-winning effort Traffic. Paltrow is married to Matt Damon, who upon the death of their son is quickly quarantined as a source site of infection in the US. The family lives in Minnesota, but the disease has also sprung up in Chicago (where Paltrow’s lover lives) and in San Francisco, where Jude Law’s bolshie Aussie journalist is determinedly pointing up the institutional failures of the CDC and the WHO in tackling a global pandemic of horrific proportions. At the CDC Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle (in a fantastic supporting turn in which she authentically enthuses of statistical graphs and powerpoint presentations) try to co-ordinate a vaccine for the new virus, ominously called MEV-1 (when it has an acronym you know it’s bad). Kate Winslet pops up as a dogged on-the-ground infectious disease specialist who stoically attempts to get an infrastructure set up to fight the disease, despite unyielding pressure and paranoia from myopically self-interested local government. Finally there is Marion Cotillard’s WHO scientist who is kidnapped, whilst investigating the suspected ‘ground zero’ of the virus in Hong Kong, by some paranoid Chinese officials who want to ransom her for priority vaccines.
What is really quite fascinating about Contagion is the way that Soderbergh and his regular composer-collaborator Cliff Martinez manage to simulate a mood that is a wholly plausible muted panic (without overt hysteria) and an increasingly claustrophobic paranoia. Martinez’s score, with its throbbing low-level electronica, perfectly complements Soderbergh’s increasingly smudged and hyper-realistic cinematography. Following on from 2009’s experimental curio The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh has managed to capture a blanched, antiseptic visual austerity, that is reminiscent of the muted, down-beat atmosphere of Three Days of the Condor. Soderbergh being Soderbergh, he is unwilling simply to settle for this chillingly effective pseudo-documentary approach and appends certain quirks of colour, lighting and lens projection onto almost every shot, so that the eye of the viewer is subtly trained upon a detail that is pulled sharply into focus against background information that is slightly smudged or distorted. This visual dynamism gives the film a truly unsettling feel, that makes its running time as gruelling an experience as Lodge Kerrigan’s debut feature Clean, Shaven.
Another troubling aspect of the movie is the way in which the narrative unfurls in a ‘relatively normal’ manner. Soderbergh resists the action-theatrics of an Outbreak (which is why this movie will definitely not appeal to those ADHD suffers out there), in favour of the medical/bureaucratic procedural, or disease chronicle, pioneered by the stately early-90’s AIDS TV movie And the Band Played On. Although obviously simplified, what Soderbergh puts up on the screen actually feels fairly close to what one might expect from such an event. Even the random acts of violence and looting that occur in Damon’s Minnesotan neighbourhood, seem to resemble the chaotically anarchic opportunism and fall-out of scared individuals, rather than the quasi-heroic idiocy of the aforementioned Hoffman vehicle. Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Cheever is particularly effective as the bureaucrat at the eye of the storm, showing all-too-human fallibility, but also an understanding of the tough decisions and the long process that lies ahead. Unlike other disease-dramas the timeline for vaccine discovery and treatment seems appropriately lengthy, without any of the wonderous ‘breakthrough’ moments of more sensational dramas.
Much like the great Romero zombie flicks of the 70’s, Soderbergh injects some critical government conspiracy plotting into the central part of the movie, suggesting that corporate entities hold back necessary medical breakthroughs in the treatment of such infectious diseases. Jude Law’s irritatingly egotistical journalist is the voice in the wilderness questioning the increasingly flawed authoritarian actions of government. Yet in a beautifully played reveal, close to the end of the film, Law’s character is shown to be not quite what he seems, delivering a cogent critique of the internet’s capacity for misinformation. The zombie-landscape is also evoked in some exquisite late-shots of desolate buildings and city centres that would have normally been hiving hubs of human activity. As ever Soderbergh knows his cinema and is not afraid to flaunt his influences, with the lottery infection treatment centres closely resembling the way the population are handled in The Crazies.
Soderbergh even manages to nail the ending by applying a cunning structure to proceedings. At first he indulges the humanity of those who have survived, somehow managing to eek a little more pathos from that hackneyed old U2 staple ‘All I Want is You’ (as well as featuring John Hawkes in a far too brief cameo). Then by way of Matt Damon’s reawakened grief, having trawled through his wife’s photos of her trip, Soderbergh sculpts a wonderfully condensed prelude-as-coda that gives all the information we haven’t had about the origins of the disease. In the way this movie weaves in, out and around its central themes and shows little, or no regard for narrative completion, it is a spellbinding work of mundane terror that simply has to be enjoyed on the big screen.