There’s something about the way the flu shot advertisements start going up earlier and earlier every year that I find a little unsettling. I’m close with many teachers, so I’m aware that the germs start spreading as soon as the first school bell rings, but the impending flu season is just not something I want to think about. And yet, I think that dread is a large part of Contagion’s box office success. Not only does the film have a talented all-star cast, it also draws on everyday paranoia in our germaphobic culture.
Contagion begins with the illness of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) upon her return home to Minnesota from a business trip to China. It doesn’t take long for the illness to spread to her young son, but before husband and stepdad Mitch (Matt Damon) realizes it’s worse than the flu, it kills them both. Meanwhile, people with similar symptoms are falling dead in a handful of other world cities. The CDC’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and epidemiologist Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) try to contain the outbreak and while WHO official Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) works to pinpoint the origin and track the global outbreak. Throwing a wrench into the system, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) spins conspiracy theories and turns to opportunism. As the contagion spreads, containing public panic becomes as pressing a need as containing the virus.
In Contagion, the only thing scarier than the virus is the way frightened people behave. I think the best part of the film is the moral ambiguity.
Few people get through without doing at least something questionable out of fear, frustration, stupidity, or ignorance. The way the stories overlap creates a network in which the characters’ actions impact each other’s lives. A lot of the tension comes simply from the chaos of extreme circumstances and the uncertainty faced by the people trying to help. Perhaps Contagion is better as a character study in panic than as a thriller. While the characters are interesting, the plot feels tired and unexciting, especially in the second half of the film.
Instead of relying on a creative plot to keep the tempo and tension running, the filmmakers used a pulsing score, which reminded me of the music heard on late-night news programs about cold cases. While using a lot of this music, often in place of audible dialogue, they also overlap dialogue between scenes so that in emergencies the action feels faster, even if no one is really rushing.
The acting is really the strongest part of Contagion. Gwyneth Paltrow’s early scenes are by far the most intense, but the rest of the cast delivers stellar performances. Laurence Fishburne balances dignity and exasperation. Per usual, Matt Damon is the go-to good-guy. Kate Winslet’s character was, to me, the most sympathetic and her furrow-browed performance brought a lot of anxiety to her scenes. There are so many stars in this film I couldn’t even fit them all in the summary. Enrico Colantoni, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, and Bryan Cranston also deliver strong performances. The actors playing smaller roles as patients are good as well. Perhaps it’s the number of Academy Award winners in the credits, but although each performance is strong, as a whole the acting was not spectacular. Much like the plot, the performances are good but not wowing.
In the end, my feelings for Contagion are pretty lukewarm. For being an interesting and well-crafted thriller, without being creative or incredibly thrilling, I rate it 3.5/5 stars.
Contagion was written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It runs 106 minutes and is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language.
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