REVIEW: Contagion Treats Star-Studded Pandemic With Stone-Cold Tension
[Minor early spoilers may follow, particularly for anyone who's avoided Contagion's trailer or coverage from Venice. -- Ed.]
No one is safe in Contagion -- not from the MEV-1 virus that ricochets out of a crowded Macau casino to cut down a sizable selection of the global population with frightening plausibility, and not from Steven Soderbergh's pitiless refusal to abide by the unspoken rules of the mainstream movie.
A few minutes in, a child who'd previously been shown sniffling and feverish turns up dead, his gaze fixed and lifeless. Almost more unsettling is the passing of Minnesota executive Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, shortly before. We'd just been introduced to Beth, just met her family, just gotten the hint that she's had an extramarital dalliance during her business trip abroad, and yet she's flopping on the floor in the grip of a seizure, and then is gone, so abruptly her shocked spouse Mitch (Matt Damon) keeps asking to speak to her even as he's informed of her death.
Contagion's killing off of an inarguable movie star at its outset is a kind of a shorthand summation of what's about to happen to its world -- a virus has no regard for wealth, ethnicity, gender or class, so why should a film about one offer an exception to a character just because she has qualities we associate with a protagonist? As Beth's doctor observes, "Some people get a disease and live, some get sicker and die." There are plentiful plot threads here, most attached to familiar faces -- Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization specialist, Laurence Fishburne as the head of the Center for Disease Control, Kate Winslet as a doctor sent to liaise with locals near a major outbreak, Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin as lab workers -- but Contagion doesn't belong to any one of those characters. They're there to provide viewpoints into a global disaster, and the film's concern isn't the survival of any of those individuals so much as it is the idea of civilization and whether it will hold up under the external force of a deadly contagious virus and the internal pressure of panic and fear mongering.
That society comes down to an agreement to abide by rules and to think of yourself as a cooperating member of a large group is the underlying theme of Contagion -- as is the moment it breaks down and everyone turns instead to looking out for themselves and their loved ones, competing for the resources needed for survival. Putting the larger good above what's best and safest for you and your people is a dilemma confronted again and again as the film goes on, and there are as many moments of rupture as there are instances of quiet nobility. While stuck in quarantined Minnesota, Damon's character, Contagion's stalwart everyman, watches as government-provided rations run out and the crowd rushes the trucks, and a similar scene takes place in San Francisco as rioters refuse to wait in line for limited doses of a rumored holistic cure. (That these scenes have echoes in recent news footage of the London riots certainly doesn't dull their impact.) Scattered survivors in a Chinese village take a hostage to move themselves to the forefront of any medical developments, while a local government rep in Minneapolis is more concerned over whose budget an emergency triage center is coming out of than its implications.
If this all sounds a little cold, it can be. While it's fleet on its feet and steady in its tension, Contagion is an exceptionally dry-eyed movie about mass death, interested more in how the structures we've built to keep order deal with the disaster than how people handle it emotionally. That's never more evident than in the passing of a prominent character who's falls ill while working to organize relief efforts and is reduced to a body in a bag in one devastating edit -- one minute a potential savior, the next fodder for a mass grave, alone and far from home. But this refusal to sentimentalize also makes displays of sacrifice and bravery all the more powerful -- when one no-nonsense CDC researcher, having worked tirelessly to find a vaccination for a virus that tends to kill cells before they can even be cultivated, makes a decision that will help speed along a potential cure, she's practically lit from within with grace.
Contagion's restraint is marred by one element -- Alan Krumwiede, the San Francisco-based activist blogger played by Jude Law, a conspiracy theorist who wields claims about uncovering the truth like a blunt instrument intended to menace. He's not always incorrect -- as the film acknowledges, there are plentiful privileges to being in the right places and knowing the right people. But Krumwiede may be the year's most repellent villain, a man who uses the pretense of working for the people to spread and capitalize on panic, who rationalizes monstrously self-interested behavior and never seems to feel shame or regret, and for whom journalism is entirely about narcissism and expanding his own self-made bully pulpit. "Blogging isn't writing, it's graffiti with punctuation," sniffs one of Krumwiede's targets, but Krumwiede could just as easily have been the blowhard host of a cable news show; the platform matters less than the habit of leveraging fame out of public fear and misinformation. Law is more compelling than he's been in years as the hateful amateur reporter, but the character never seems human, his psychology murky even as the point he proves about the power of the promise of forcefully unveiled secrets rings true.
Contagion marks time in numbers, tracking how long it's been since the virus first appeared -- Day 2, Day 26, Day 141 -- but tracking people in numbers too, noting the populations of each new city at which it and the illness arrives. Hong Kong, London, Chicago, Tokyo -- the ease and speed with which MEV-1 spreads is a reminder that we're living in a global society, one through which information can pass as quickly as infection. And given the teeming, impersonal masses through which the first sick characters stumble, the film's affirmation of the connection humanity provides us is unexpectedly uplifting, the elements we have in common holding up against the animal chaos of a blind drive for survival.