'Contagion': Venice Film Review

Warner Bros.
With simmering tension and some memorable acting performances by a stellar cast, Soderbergh's disease thriller is worth catching.

With an ensemble cast including Kate Winslet, Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne, Steven Soderbergh's thriller tracks the spread of a deadly virus that sparks worldwide panic.

A shrewd, unsensationalistic, non-visual effects-dependent global disaster melodrama, Contagion creates a credible picture of how the world might react (and, up to a point, has reacted) in the face of a rapidily spreading mystery disease for which no cure exists. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns create unease and simmering tension without going over the top into souped-up suspense or gross-out moments (with one possible exception), which will automatically lessen interest among the lowest-common-denominator crowd. But the fine cast, likely solid critical reaction and undeniable topicality position this as a robust B.O. performer for the early fall season. The Warner Bros. release world premiered Saturday night at the Venice Film Festival.

Spanning the planet but keeping his focus intimate, Soderbergh plausibly sets up a scenario in which everyday human contact—people touching themselves, others and ordinary objects—triggers an inter-continental plague that instantly transforms the way people relate to one another and throws governments and the relevant medical institutions into a panic. The immediate twin issues are how to combat the disease, whatever it is, and how to deal with a populace increasingly inflamed by rumors that, thanks to personal electronic communications, travel even faster than does the virus.

Despite such familiar devices as ticking-clock calendar postings--”Day 14,” “Day 131”--military checkposts, the president going underground and so on, the feeling here is far more realistic and science-based than artificially concocted. Notwithstanding the urgent struggles faced by the diverse group of characters, including those such as the regular Joe played by Matt Damon, the heart of the movie rests with the medical professionals played by Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishburne, individuals placed on the anvil of the crisis whose performance under pressure will likely tell the tale.

The first symptoms are ordinary enough—coughing, weakness, a bit of fever. But nothing can prevent it getting worse. For Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), just returned to Minneapolis after a business trip to Hong Kong, it takes only two days for her collapse, start twitching, foam at the mouth and die. Her son soon follows, leaving her husband Mitch (Damon) both bereft and desperate that nothing happen to his teenage stepdaughter.

Reports of “clusters” of such cases have filtered in from Tokyo, London and elsewhere, so that by the fifth day, the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Asia to try to identify the source. Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) of the U.S. Center for Disease Control sets up quarantine facilities in Minneapolis while Beth's tissues are analyzed for clues as to the nature of the malady, a must for a vaccine to be created.

Congenitally opposed to such medical prudence and official explanations for anything is Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a rogue English blogger based in San Francisco who seems privy to lots of hard information. When rebuffed by the establishment press, the rabid contrarian begins a one-man online crusade to expose an alleged conspiracy between governments and pharmaceutical companies to hide the truth and eventually produce a cure for maximum profitability, even as he claims to possess a homeopathic remedy.

Further skepticism of the health establishment is embodied by a genius Bay Area scientist (Elliott Gould) who quickly figures out the structure of the pathogen on his own; unfortunately, Gould, so engaging whenever he works with Soderbergh, disappears after this initially flurry. Cotillard also gets short-shrifted, as her character is sequestered by the plot for a long time.

After a frenzy of activity by Dr. Mears, who is a model of selfless medical dedication, attention begins to turn more Ehle's Dr. Ally Hextall, a game researcher in the CDC's high-security lab who must run laborious tests on monkeys but keeps her eyes open and mind alert. It's a measure of the changing times that three of the most senior doctors involved—those played by Cotillard, Winslet and Ehle—are women.

Also forward in the frame is a morally compromised figure, Fishburne's CDC Deputy Director Ellis Cheever, a rational man dedicated to serving responsibly but, in a pinch, capable of committing a professional transgression for the sake of a loved one, for which he is nailed by the relentless Krumwiede.

The common man is represented by Damon's Mitch, who witnesses at close range the collapse of the social order and the rise of lawlessness. As Krumwide's blog and, no doubt, others like it fan fears of food, drug and supply shortages, stores and homes are routinely looted. After four months or so of the epidemic, some 26 million people have died, with the number continuing to grow exponentially.

While devoting most of their efforts to vividly dramatizing the alarming dimensions a modern plague could reach, Soderbergh and Burns, who hatched the idea and did research together, cunningly underscore the adverse or, at least, equivocal role played by alarmists like the loose cannon blogger Krumwiede. Mindful of some of the most dire predictions for and reactions to such maladies as SARS, Mad Cow disease and North American heterosexual AIDS, it's possible to both admire Krumwiede's fearlessness in taking on the authorities while also suspecting his motives and cry-wolf tendancies. In all events, it's an excellent character to have included and Law brings it home with compelling ferociousness.

The pressure cooker plot calls for intense performances all around but first among equals are Winslet and Ehle. The former's abilities are amply known but, whenever Ehle appears in films or onstage, she makes it clear she entirely belongs in the company of Streep (whom she resembles), Winslet, Blanchett, Kidman, Linney, et al. She just needs to get a few of the choice parts.

Shooting as usual under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews with the Red camera, Soderbergh achieves an intimate you-are-there sensation throughout while working on superb diverse international locations. Cliff Martinez's score hums along very helpfully and without cliches. Only significant “yuck” moment comes during the autopsy on Paltrow's character, in which the doctors peel her scalp back over her face.

Implicitly, Contagion poses a rhetorical about how you split the difference between making an intelligent, scientifically plausible film about something as alarming as a worldwide plague and creating a mass-audience entertainment sufficiently titillating in its catastrophic consequences to entice a huge public. Unsurprisingly, Soderbergh has tilted closer to the former but is familiar enough with the latter to quicken the collective pulse a bit.