' ' Cinema Romantico: Contagion

Monday, September 12, 2011


The bowl of cocktail peanuts. That's what stays with me. In a film about a virus pandemic that very easily could be classified as horror it's quite telling that director Steven Soderbergh chooses not to feature an opening scene of someone foaming at the mouth and dropping dead spectacularly on a busy downtown sidewalk or a scene on Day 137 of the pandemic when the streets are deserted and looters and thugs are running rampant and then flashing back to the beginning but simply showing Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) with a raspy cough at an airport bar. She dips her fingers in the bowl of cocktail peanuts. She drinks from her cocktail glass, the same glass some poor sap will soon have to wash. She hands the bartender her credit card. Even if you haven't seen the preview you know what's coming and then it does, but it does just like this opening plays - quietly, but then quickly.

Like most films of this nature, Soderbergh and his writer, Scott Z. Burns, focus on several storylines which, for the most part, remain separate, spreading from Asia to America, like the disease itself. A father looks out for his daughter, fighting to ensure she remains unaffected. Doctors try to track down the origin of the disease. The intrepid skeptic in the beanie refuses to believe everything is as it seems. You know the drill. The plights of the people really are secondary to the pandemic and while that risks the potential for a lull in the audience's involvement it also seems entirely appropriate because in the face of a fast-acting threat similar to the one "Contagion" portrays, plights of people really would become secondary. Survival or Surrender. Nothing else matters.

Knowing then that story outweighs character, Soderbergh smartly casts recognizable faces in nearly every role - Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard. Even in roles glimpsed in no more than a handful of scenes, like the doctor agonizing for the possibility of a cure, Elliot Gould plays the part so we can nod and say "Ah, Ross & Monica's dad" and instantly have a bond without wasting precious time for exposition.

This isn't to suggest the film is without flaws. The Cotillard character, most glaringly, disappears partway through and when she eventually makes her return she then makes a dramatic, noble decision that is strangely not followed up. She's not left hanging, but she is left running. Law's intrepid skeptic in the beanie, meanwhile, fulfills the requisite political quotient while also helpfully reminding us that science is Good and blogging is Bad. (Not to disparage Law's work, however, who does well just what he is asked.)

Even so, the film is terrifically taut and plenty scary and does a rather believable job of making the entire situation feel both gradual and all at once. Matt Damon takes his daughter to the grocery store, finds it overrun with desperate people acting desperately and the thought in his eyes throughout this sequence is clear: "We're fine, we're fine, we're fine...uh oh, we're not fine."

Too bad the film runs a couple minutes too long. Oh, I suppose we needed to know just how this MEV-1 came into such terrified being but it actually pales in comparison to the ancient lesson re-learned in the sequence right before it that teeters on too-sweet until you realize it's actually there to smack you upside the head. Things are getting back to normal, but nothing will ever be the same.


Daryl said...

What about Rob Lowe as the deaf/mute Nick Andros? What about Chris Pine as that one guy in the group? What about Ving M-F Rhames as Cop Guy? I don't think you were watching very closely, sir. Cliffs Notes will not suffice on Cinema Romantico.

Nick Prigge said...

For a brief moment my heart soared as I thought, "Daryl saw 'Contagion?' Daryl SAW a movie?!" Alas, it was not to be. Sigh.

But you're right. I also neglected to mention Matt Dillon as the valiant barge captain who despite being stricken by MEV-1 still pilots his load of grain to its destination.

Wretched Genius said...

Please tell me there's a post-credits scene were Cillian Murphy wakes up alone in an empty hospital.