Review: ‘Contagion’ is Horror For Hypochondriacs

By  · Published on September 9th, 2011

When a young executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to China, she returns with a bad cough and even worse headaches. Not long after, her young son appears to exhibit the same symptoms. Before her husband, the boy’s step-father played by Matt Damon, can even whip up a bowl of chicken soup, the boy and his mother are dead. The doctors are baffled by the mysterious disease, and soon more cases turn up around the world and scores of people begin dying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as The World Health Organization work to their furthest limitations trying to identify the disease, track its spread, and develop a cure.

In many ways, this film is the essence of drama – an examination of what it is that connects people. The word contagion by its definition is the communication, or sharing, of a disease, and Contagion connects us through the most ubiquitous objects in our daily lives. Director Steven Soderbergh lingers on shots of coffee cups, subway handrails, and doorknobs; silently inviting us to ponder on all previous users. This device is microcosmic of his larger mission: to illustrate how a singular event can connect people of divergent backgrounds, nationalities, cultures, and personalities. This is nothing new for Soderbergh, as he used the flow of narcotics into the U.S. to create connections between very different people in Traffic. He also examines how bureaucracy and the media would factor into a global catastrophe just as much as science; three universal languages, if only in different dialects.

Also nothing new to Soderbergh, he has assembled quite the cast to represent those intertwined stories. Joining Damon and Paltrow, actors like Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law are all consistently honest and fascinating as our multi-perspective guides through the cataclysm. I’m reminded of that Tommy Lee Jones quote from Men In Black when his character said, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” This movie focuses on the persons trying to either save or simply survive the people; or exploit them as in the case of Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede. The moments where Contagion is most powerful are those of untainted compassion amidst its seeming widespread loss everywhere else. There are characters who exert their last breath during acts of charity, and others who jeopardize their own safety to assist the less fortunate. But then, I even found Jude Law’s skeezy blogger character, against whom I should be railing out of principle, to be genuine and enjoyed the less altruistic counterbalance he provided.

Soderbergh does an amazing job not only establishing the horrific effects of this disease, but its almost-sentient insidiousness as well. Those lingering shots of handrails or restaurant cutlery take on a note of absolute menace after a while; creating dread and suspense out of the routine and mundane. He even goes so far as to make shaking someone’s hand a foreboding gesture. Seriously, if you are the least bit germophobic, this movie is going to scare the hell out of you. It’s Halloween for hypochondriacs.

But apart from the virus itself, there is another horror fundamental at play here. When you take a zombie film and strip away the supernatural element of the dead rising again and walking the Earth, what remains? These films are actually about mankind facing extinction and the violent, frantic lengths we will go to in order to survive. The ravenous hordes in this film are not the dead, but the living whose fear of death has driven them to abandon their humanity and value only their own well-being. In short, if you do classify Contagion as a horror film, the virus is not the monster; the monster is us.

Unfortunately, Contagion creates a different type of chaos with this cast that it doesn’t know how to manage. While most of the stories are adequately flushed out and given poignant conclusions that all seem to suggest life returning to normal, others are deserted and unrealized. The worst offender is Marion Cotillard’s character’s story, which is one of the most dramatic, and which is also completely abandoned. We know she’s been kidnapped while investigating an outbreak in China and is being held in exchange for a small village being placed at the top of the list for vaccination. The thing is, that vaccine takes months to appear so her character is just left there without revisit in the interim, and when she does come back into focus, there are too many questions left hanging about what the audience didn’t get to see. As a result, it feels like flimsy writing.

The film also tacks on an unnecessary hand-hold-y final element that undermines what it achieved with the rest of the run-time. If writer Scott Burns thinks we are the type of audience allergic to loose ends, then why do we get obscure fragments of Marion Cotillard’s story and only a vague hint as to its resolution?

One aspect of Contagion that deserves special recognition is its score. Cliff Martinez’s work here is absolutely phenomenal. It’s a quiet, pulsing, somewhat disorienting electro opera that plays to the horror elements of the film. It was like Daft Punk scoring a John Carpenter film. It drove much of the tension of the film and did a great job keeping the audience engaged even at its slowest point.

Upside: Contagion is an outstanding film. It deals with a topic that seems so fantastical, mainly because it has often been appropriated for high genre fare, but the excellent performances and communal human experiences explored firmly grounds it in reality.

Downside: Certain stories are weak and underdeveloped; characters disappearing for long periods of time.

On the side: Soderbergh is a workhorse. His next film Haywire opens in January.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.