At The Picture Show
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
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
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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