In Contagion, every doorknob, every elevator button, every handshake poses an insidious, unseen threat. Director Steven Soderbergh cannily shoots these things as though they are the artifacts of a horror film—which, of course, they are. We have seen the boogeyman and he is a cough on the bus.
“The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute,” says Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a doctor from the Center for Disease Control, who has been dispatched to Chicago in an attempt to interview and quarantine those who have been in contact with a deadly, fast-moving virus.
Within the first few minutes of the film, we see Gwyneth Paltrow, as a perfectly healthy wife and mother from Chicago, just back from a business trip to Hong Kong, get suddenly sick and die. (This isn’t a really spoiler and if it is, I’m about to spoil you further: Lots more deaths will follow.)
As he did in Traffic, Soderbergh deftly introduces us to lots of characters—doctors, patients, infectious disease experts, government officials, conspiracy theorists, innocent bystanders, et al—who are affected by the scourge. And as the disease and the inevitable mass hysteria spreads, everything Soderbergh zeroes in on—a triage center set up in an empty stadium, a prerecorded 911 message (“If you are experiencing symptoms, please hang up. . .”), the woefully inadequate dispatching of ready-to-eat meals for the quarantined—intentionally echoes such recent public catastrophes as Katrina and 9/11. It all feels chillingly authentic.
The movie has a built-in villain, of cousre—the virus itself. But here is where Soderbergh somewhat stumbles. Most of the characters fighting the virus—from Laurence Fishburne’s sympathetic disease expert to Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organization official—are almost impossibly noble and self-sacrificing. (The film could almost work as a recruitment video for the WHO. ) Yes, there’s an implication that powerful people will be treated first, if and when a vaccine hits the market, but there’s no one character to fully represent that kind of repulsive elitism. (We need at least one outrage-inducing scene, like that famous one from Titanic, where the first class passengers are placed on roomy lifeboats as the steerage class dwellers are trapped below.)
Thank goodness, then, for Jude Law as a muckraking blogger who claims to have an herbal cure to the disease. He’s hyper, combative, a populist face to rage against the powers that be—and a nice contrast to the film’s occasionally sanctimonious tone. But as a clever little Shepard-Fairey-esque street poster posits: Is he a prophet or just in it for the profit?
While not perfect, Contagion is that most disconcerting of horror films: One that could absolutely and believably come true. When you leave the film, you’ll head straight to the drug store to buy some hand sanitizer, and you’ll most likely open the theater door with your sleeve.
To read my complete review of Contagion, check out the October issue of Baltimore.