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Clinical ‘Contagion’ a smart but chilly thriller

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

September 16, 2011

While I was settling in to watch “Contagion” this past weekend, a guy in front of me pulled the classic yawn-and-stretch on his date, clearly aiming to get an arm around her. It worked, but then the film began with a carefully choreographed sequence in which the camera traces the journey of some suspicious germs: a cough, a touch of hands, and no hand sanitizer in sight. Pretty soon the smooth operator in front of me loosened his grasp on his date—I guess that’s what happens when date night involves a movie whose tagline is “Don’t touch anyone.”

“Contagion” is a rare thing, a global disaster movie with nary a zombie, alien or poisonous tree in sight. Instead, the mysterious illness at its center is essentially a really bad flu.

After a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) arrives at her Minneapolis home feeling a bit under the weather. She’s dead within days, leaving behind her stunned husband Mitch (Matt Damon). She’s Patient Zero. Within a few months, a twelfth of the global population will share her disease.

That’s where a team of scientists enters the picture. The CDC’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) leads the charge, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to set up quarantine shelters and commissioning Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) to create a vaccine. The WHO, meanwhile, dispatches Swiss scientist Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to China in the hopes of finding the illness’ point of origin. It’s a race against time, with the cities hardest hit by the catastrophe quickly devolving into anarchy. Fears are stoked by shock-blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who alleges a government conspiracy is afoot.

“Contagion” is a clinical film. That analytical opening sequence is just one example and director Steven Soderbergh repeats the same trick several times throughout the film. Every time we travel to a new city, the first thing that greets us is a caption which states the number of inhabitants—or, rather, the number of potential cadavers.

Because the film’s cast is so large, we don’t get to know any of these characters very well; instead, Soderbergh focuses squarely on the macro. There are riots and food shortages. Nurses strike after it becomes clear there’s nothing they can do for their patients. As a scientific study, it’s fascinating.

While “Contagion” isn’t a character piece, it boasts an exceptionally strong cast that features four Oscar winners and three nominees.

Damon functions as the film’s emotional center; we get a true sense of the disease’s human toll simply by examining his face.

Fishburne benefits from the most screen time and he doesn’t waste a minute of it. In his first scene, he strides confidently into his office building in a way that lets you know he’ll beat this—or die trying.

Law takes an obvious glee in bringing his bad blogger to life but his characterization never ceased feeling over-the-top. That’s partly the fault of the script; we never know if Krumwiede genuinely believes his accusations or if he’s simply taking advantage of the public’s vulnerability (at any rate, it feels reductive to blame the Internet for panic when there’s a major disease afoot).

Of the women, Winslet leaves the deepest impression. Mears is a reserved woman but Winslet laces every line with a deep-seated compassion.

Ehle, meanwhile, imbues her character with an off-kilter glee as she sets out to concoct a vaccine that is, in a word, refreshing. There’s a particular moment in which she makes a surprising discovery in the lab; her face, lit by equipment, erupts into a smile that lights up an otherwise dour film.

Paltrow has little screen time, her role confined primarily to flashbacks. The film completely wastes Cotillard. Not only does she disappear for only half the film but you also get the feeling that any French actress could’ve filled the part.

“Contagion” surely would have benefited from a slightly more emotional approach but, as is, the film is a smart, sleek peek at a global pandemic.

If that sounds appealing, then don’t miss it—just remember to wash your hands afterward.

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