Contagion is named for the film’s most developed character. That might seem unfair to the human actors, who play their parts—Marion Cotillard an epidemiologist, Matt Damon a paragon of endurance, Laurence Fishburne a CDC boss, Jude Law a blogger-alarmist, Gwyneth Paltrow a first casualty and Kate Winslet a damage controller—but that’s the nature of the disaster movie. This is a film about a highly lethal and highly communicable virus, and the other characters, their screentime limited, tend to die off quickly and to little effect.
Director Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film is Contagion, a disaster flick that pushes its A-list stars—Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet—behind the contagion itself.
Rest assured, this also being a Steven Soderbergh film, when characters die they don’t necessarily disappear. The Soderbergh touch often includes tinkering with narrative cause and effect, by running time backwards or in little loops, often to the tune of slick, propulsive music by Cliff Martinez. Screen titles keep us abreast of the outbreak chronology, but in a typically Soderberghian coup de grace, we don’t see day one until the end.
Those little switchbacks even slip into the dialogue, as expressions of shock and grief. In one memorable moment, Damon’s character gets some bad news from a doctor and just presses right on with perfunctory questions before the news has sunk in. The screenwriter is Scott Z. Burns, who also saw Damon through The Bourne Ultimatum and Soderbergh’s The Informant! Burns too seems keen on a challenge here —namely, the reconciliation of less-is-more storytelling with one of those stories in which half the characters only exist to explain things and the other half to need things explained.
In Contagion, that tension might be allegorically useful. The theme has to do with the modern perils of accelerated exposure—to disease, to information, to diseased information. It’s meant to be timely, amid the vortex of disembodied newscaster narration and texted emoticons, “social distancing” is suggested as containment strategy. Some good that’ll do.
Anyway, just more food for thought while we’re also commemorating terrorism and various cataclysmic natural and financial disasters. Fortunately, hysteria—be it paranoia of germ pandemics or of soul-eating solipsism—isn’t Soderbergh’s style. He’d rather stay chicly aloof.
In truth, we should have seen this coming. In all of Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half-hour biopic Che, arguably the most dramatic moments involved a guy suffering from asthma. Now, though omnipresent, Contagion’s most developed character also is a tad coy. It requires several spokespeople. The best is a researcher played by Jennifer Ehle, no stranger to thankless movie roles, and here a revelation for her sort of Streepian dignity, a textured softness that makes everything she says seem worth paying attention to. Other context keepers, including John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston and Elliott Gould, hover at the periphery. Maybe they’re safest there.