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At The Picture Show
September 2011

Going viral

Soderbergh offers up another intriguing experiment in 'Contagion'

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Chin Han, Elliott Gould and Gwyneth Paltrow
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Opened September 9, 2011
(out of four)

Among the (many) reasons I like Steven Soderbergh so much is that he never stops experimenting. Never has for the last two-plus decades. Refuses to.

The man works at an alarmingly high rate, banging out film after film without really repeating himself. It's a running joke with some friends of mine that Soderbergh never sleeps - which, we argue, is the only way to explain how he keeps pulling new films out of nowhere (even some that were previously unannounced or un-talked about, but which show up out of the blue on a release schedule).

Since 2000 alone (and including two completed projects set for release within the next year), he has 17 features to his name. Plus a (hilarious) short from the anthology film Eros. Plus some TV work. Do you know what he's doing right now? True story. He's working as the second-unit director on The Hunger Games. For fun, I guess.

He shifts so quickly and effortlessly between styles and genres, it would be hard to keep up, if only he didn't make each project so distinctive - both the successes and the failures. Even if one individual film or another doesn't totally work, what he attempts - and the chances he takes each time, sometimes practically reinventing himself on the fly - command admiration. It's rare to find a filmmaker who risks failure so brazenly, and still manages to come up roses much more often than not.

His latest experiment, Contagion, hails from a subgenre typically relegated to movie-of-the-week status on basic cable. (That, or just-plain-silly blockbusters like Outbreak.) Yes, it's the good old viral epidemic thriller - which you get the feeling Soderbergh made because a viral epidemic thriller is something he hadn't tried yet. (In the same way his next movie, Haywire, he seems to have made because a full-blown action flick is another thing he hadn't tried yet.)

One of the things that defines epidemic procedurals by and large is how overblown they are - both in the superficial urgency of the direction and the manic silliness of the rising action. Does Contagion avoid all the cliches and narrative pitfalls we expect? Hardly. But it does manage to make them seem more measured, reasoned, organic. There's a stark matter-of-factness to the drama as it unfolds - first the mystery, then the worry, finally the panic - that serves as something of a rebuke to the kind of hysteria we've gotten accustomed to from other virus thrillers.

I suspect some of that has to do with the efforts of composer Cliff Martinez (whose masterful work was the moody, under-your-skin foundation of Soderbergh's criminally overlooked Solaris remake). Once again, he's setting the mood in Contagion, creating a score that is as much of a fascinating enigma as the mysterious virus at the heart of the story. With echoes of the synth scores that populated urban thrillers for a time in the '80s, Martinez's composition makes it feel like the music itself is ruminating on the implications of the action, instead of trying to intrude on and drive the action.

That low-key approach is one way Contagion is able to sidestep direct comparisons to similarly themed movies. The comparisons will be made nonetheless, but the filmmaking here is more thoughtful than usual.

The script, written by Scott Z.Burns (who last collaborated with Soderbergh on 2009's brilliant The Informant!), avoids delving too far into silliness or melodrama (which would be an easy temptation). Instead, Burns covers what seems to be genuinely interesting about the epidemic - the science of it, the minutiae, the bureaucracy. The major players include a doctor at the Center for Disease Control (played by Laurence Fishburne), two epidemiologists (Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard), a CDC scientist (Jennifer Ehle) and, in a small but crucial role, Elliott Gould as a professor and scientist tasked with examining the virus.

On the periphery is a self-serving blogger/journalist/conspiracy theorist played by Jude Law, who insists that a homeopathic cure is readily available. There's something perceptive and unsettling about the way the character is used; he's kind of a combination of Glenn Beck and that charlatan from those late-night, fake-interview infomercials - you know, the one who yaps about the greediness of the pharmaceutical industry and then tries to sell you all his books.

And then of course there's the human element, which permeates all the above characters but is most crucially exemplified in the presence of Matt Damon, who plays a grieving husband (whose wife was one of the early victims of the virus, and a reference point/case study for those researching it) and father to a teenage daughter whose protection is his only priority. It's another in a series of strong performances from Damon, in what was already a strong ensemble. (In fact, despite the star power, arguably the most interesting role and performance comes from the lesser-known Ehle.)

If anything, I think Soderbergh lets the screenplay do too much of the heavy lifting at times. The no-frills, matter-of-fact approach works to the film's benefit, but there are scenes and moments that fall strangely flat - scenes that no doubt work perfectly fine on the page but for some reason don't completely translate to the screen.

Still, this remains an effective thriller - in large part by going against the impulses that typically characterize thrillers. Which is of course what we expect from Soderbergh - when he takes on a genre, he makes it his own.

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