Contagion is ruthlessly effective, not unlike a ravaging virus. If you’re a germaphobe to any degree, either stay far away or plan on dousing yourself in hand sanitizer after leaving the theater.
The movie opens with the sound of coughing and proceeds to relentlessly emphasize the sort of details we associate with sickness and contagion. Smudged drinking glasses are constantly in the foreground, being passed from one hand to the next. Door handles get close-ups worthy of Gloria Swanson. Director Steven Soderbergh makes the virulence so palpable, you’ll want to watch the film wearing a surgical mask.
Soderbergh is no stranger to large casts thanks to Traffic and the Ocean’s Eleven films and he deftly handles a whopper of one here: Matt Damon as a father whose family is struck by a deadly new form of the flu; Gwyneth Paltrow as his ailing wife; Kate Winslet as an “epidemic intelligence service investigator;” Laurence Fishburne as her boss at the Center for Disease Control; Marion Cotillard as a European investigator; Jude Law as a conspiracy blogger. And there are more.
As you can see, Contagion takes a wide-angle view of the epidemic, an approach that’s reminiscent of the ensemble disaster films of the 1970s. Yet it’s this big-picture strategy that also makes the movie timely. Emphasizing society’s global interconnectedness – Paltrow contracts the disease while on a business trip to Hong Kong; Law’s blog can induce panic across the world in an instant – the movie exposes the particular vulnerabilities we have today. It’s a paranoid disease thriller for our glocal age.
To its credit, Contagion also manages to be intimate. Damon aches as the bewildered father and husband; he has a grieving scene that’s masterfully underplayed. Later, in what almost amounts to a throwaway moment, Winslet manages to communicate sacrificial compassion with little more than a gesture. Meanwhile, a minor subplot involving a teen couple kept apart by their parents for fear of contagion puts an apocalyptic spin on “Romeo and Juliet.”
These touches are important, because Soderbergh can be a cold, overly intellectual filmmaker. Soderbergh’s clinical instincts are fitting for a science-driven thriller such as this, but the reason Contagion lingers is because of the human moments that worm their way into your heart.