Contagion (2011)

Starring Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan, Elliott Gould, Anna Jacoby-Heron

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Expectations: High, I have a good feeling about this one.

I’m not a huge Steven Soderbergh fan, but I respect him immensely. Where most Oscar-winning directors are happy to stay sheltered within the studio system once they receive their acclaim, Soderbergh is not one to be shackled to any one genre or tied to any specific type of film. He consistently makes the films he wants to make, casting unknown actors in one film and then following it up with a slickly produced Ocean’s Eleven film. If there’s one style that has become synonymous with his name though, it’s the ensemble cast drama, even if he hasn’t really made too many of them. Traffic was clearly his defining film for most people (and me as well), so going into Contagion I had an idea that it would be “Traffic with germs”.

That’s pretty much what I got, but that’s far too simple of a way to put it. It both sells the film short and fails to convey the triumph that Soderbergh has achieved with Contagion. There have been lots of viral epidemic movies throughout the years, but never have they been as hyper-realistic as this. Contagion methodically moves from day-to-day, tracking the course of the outbreak across the world. It focuses on a number of people in various locations around the world, and together their stories weave into an overall picture of the epidemic story that is Contagion. It’s like a disease procedural, so if you zoned out or got bored during this paragraph, then perhaps this film is not for you. If, on the other hand, this sounds interesting and up your alley, then definitely give Contagion a shot.

It’s an ensemble, so if nothing else the acting should be good. It is, and literally everyone in the film turns in a great performance. My girlfriend had an issue with Anna Jacoby-Heron, the girl who played Matt Damon’s daughter, and I somewhat agree in regards to the early scene she commented on, but as the film progressed she did better and represented a high school kid pretty well. It’s her first movie too, so that explains some of the questionable line delivery. Anyway, in a film like this it’s hard to single out any one outstanding performance because the film really succeeds on the strength of the overall unit, but I gotta give some props to Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet. They all did extremely well selling their individual positions and created memorable, believable characters. Everyone else did too, but these three really stood out from the crowd.

Beyond that, what impressed me about Contagion is Soderbergh’s absolute control and confidence in slowly dispensing the data about the disease and its global spread, skillfully managing the multiple ongoing storylines with apparent ease. That’s no small feat, and Soderbergh makes it look like child’s play. In addition to masterful editing between the characters, the film is also visually interesting and exceedingly well-shot. A procedural about an epidemic has no business looking as stunning as Contagion does, but holy shit does it look great. Soderbergh has always had an eye for clever visuals, even in the most mundane of settings, and he really outdoes himself here. Each and every shot looks perfectly composed, while still retaining the in-the-moment feel of a camera crew on assignment. There’s a sense of urgency and purpose in every shot that speaks volumes. And it’s a truly global film. When it says Hong Kong, it’s actually Hong Kong! This adds yet another layer of realism, selling the intensity of the social impact and the spread of the virus in ways that no studio backlot could have.

I also have to mention that the score is fucking phenomenal. It fits the film like a tailored glove, as well as working perfectly as ambient writing music. I’ve always heralded Jon Brion’s Magnolia score as one of the best scores to write to, but Cliff Martinez’s work on Contagion is definitely giving it a run for its game show money. Fuck the Oscars and their bullshit nominations for Best Original Score. Contagion, Attack the Block and The Skin I Live In could all get together and collectively take out each and every one of the nominees without even breaking a sweat.

Contagion is one of the best films of 2011 and should have secured a Best Picture nomination with ease. Unfortunately it did not as Hollywood seems to be once again enamored with congratulating itself for all the wonderful things it did over the years and nominating such pandering films as The Artist or The Help. Oh wait, they’re always like that. Contagion is slow-paced and could easily be seen as boring to certain people, but for me it remains one of the most enthralling and interesting movies of the year. If you’ve ever been curious how a large-scale viral epidemic would go down, Contagion is the film for you. Highly recommended.

8 comments to Contagion (2011)

  • Contagion becomes a battle between what it is and what it could have been. It satisfies just enough to warrant its existence while frustrating one with its potential. Nice review Will. Nothing special but pretty realistic.

  • Man, I was so frustrated with this film. It just didn’t do much, and felt more like a documentary than a fictional feature film. Not sure if that was Soderbergh’s intent or not, but that’s the way it came across. It felt rushed and unfinished – I mean, what happened with Marion Cotillard’s character in the end…. where did she run off too? – and the Matt Damon sequences felt like they came from a different movie….

    Nope, consider me disappointed in this one.

    • I liked it because it felt like a documentary. I think that was totally his intention. He wanted to make it hyper-realistic and he succeeded completely. I can understand why you didn’t connect with it because of this, but I think Soderbergh specifically didn’t want to go down the overly dramatized Outbreak path. It didn’t feel rushed or unfinished at all to me. It felt like Cotillard, when she found out the truth about the hand-off, decided to return to the village because she had built up a connection with the people there despite the circumstances.

  • I just saw this last weekend. Solid movie but as Rodney said, it almost felt like a documentary because there is so little emotional connection to the characters. Not sure what the point of the movie was, aside from demonstrating how a highly contagious disease could turn into a deadly pandemic.

    • I think that was the point, just realistically trying to capture the global spread of a virus. It definitely had a documentary feel and that’s what really drew me in. I thought there was enough in each story to care for the characters, but it is definitely detached. I don’t know, I loved it.

      • I think it functions as a document to both how resilient and compassionate humans can be while also noting how easy it would be for societal structures to breakdown. Selfishness is inherent even in the most well intentioned, and those who know this can exploit it. Soderbergh’s documentary-esque approach functions to lower the audience’s perception of the events as fictitious, and underline just how real he believes both the threat of a disease and his mixed view of the human condition.

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