Matt Damon as Thomas Emhoff
Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes
Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears
Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever
Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede
Gwyneth Paltrow as Beth Emhoff
Bryan Cranston as Lyle Haggerty
Jennifer Ehle as Dr. Ally Hextall
Elliott Gould as Dr. Ian Sussman
Sanaa Lathan as Aubrey Cheever
Monique Gabriela Curnen as Lorraine Vasquez
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
SPOILER WARNING: There are a few minor spoilers in this review about at least one of the characters who dies fairly early on which is given away in the commercials, but also about a turn leading into the last act. If you were planning on seeing the movie anyway and are worried about having these plot points spoiled, just go see the movie and don’t read this review.
A virus has been unleashed on the world, and Minnesota family man Thomas Emhoff (Matt Damon) is the first one affected as agents of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) desperately try to uncover the virus’ origins and find a cure before it spirals out of control. Meanwhile, blogger and conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwidede (Jude Law) thinks he has the answer to prevent the virus from spreading, and he’s willing to sell that information to the highest bidder.
It’s been a long time since Steven Soderbergh has done something on the scale of “Traffic” and where that got into the inner workings of the drug trade, “Contagion” follows the passage of a virus from one person to another until it explodes into an epidemic leaving thousands and millions dead.
It begins with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff as she returns from a business retreat in Hong Kong with what appears to be the flu. Days later, she’s dead as is her son, leaving her husband (Matt Damon), who is seemingly immune to the disease, trying to find answers. As people start dying off in other cities, government agencies like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) try to ascertain where it came from in order to develop a vaccine before more people die.
Working from an exemplary script by “The Informant!” scribe Scott Z. Burns, “Contagion” gives Soderbergh the chance to fully explore the idea of what might happen if a deadly virus is unleashed on the world in a hyper-realistic way, getting deep into the workings of government agencies like the CDC and the WHO. Despite there being a lot of scientific data to reinforce the realistic handling of the material, it never loses sight of the human aspect of the story and how something like an unknown virus affects individual people.
This is mainly seen by the subplot involving Matt Damon, another strong dramatic role for the actor that revolves around a father’s concern for his teen daughter and keeping her alive by essentially quarantining her to the house. Damon might be the everyman way into an epidemic as it unfolds, but one could just as easily cite Laurence Fishburne’s head of the CDC as the real core of the story, as he contends with the outbreak, sending operatives into the infected zone and compromising his job in order to protect his own loved ones.
Kate Winslet plays Dr. Erin Mears, the CDC’s “detective” on the forefront of figuring out where this virus came from in order to isolate it, while Marion Cottilard performs a similar role for the World Health Organization, traveling to Hong Kong to find out the roots. Needless to say, these are two of the finest actresses working today and they bring a great deal of weight to their respective storylines, but they’re just parts of what is one of Soderbergh’s most impressive ensemble cast to date, all of them being given equal time and weight. Proof of this can be found in the casting of John Hawkes as a CDC janitor whose story is given just as much importance as the others.
By far, the most interesting subplot involves a blogger played by Jude Law, a know-it-all who implies that he has all the answers about the virus and its cure, his audience growing as he cashes in on that information. When we meet him, he can’t even get the time of day from an editor at a local paper, but when the film becomes more about the spread of information than it does about the virus, this is where his character thrives, spouting even more rhetoric.
The last act takes place months after the outbreak as a CDC scientist played by Jennifer Ehle has found a cure by testing it on herself. As we’ve learned from various takes on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this is normally frowned upon in the scientific community. The existence of a cure causes even more concern and panic among survivors whether or not there will be enough of a supply of the vaccine as the CDC doles it out via lottery.
The film’s biggest problem may be how slowly its paced in establishing the various characters and subplots primarily through dialogue and scientific exposition, which doesn’t make it feel anything like what might be deemed a traditional thriller. There’s certainly tension inherent in every turn of the story, but the material is always handled in the most nonsensationalistic way possible, the most shocking aspect of the movie being how fast the virus spreads.
Soderbergh continually enforces his skills as a visual filmmaker, every single shot having the greatest impact whether it’s merely a shot of a door handle or something else that might spread the virus or how the world is transformed in such a short span of time. The accompanying soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is absolutely brilliant–he also composed the equally effective score to Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”– comprised of ambient synths and subtle techno rhythms that add to the underlying tension in every scene.
The Bottom Line:
There’s a lot going on in this epic exploration of how an epidemic spreads and affects everyone, working on many different levels and far more effectively than more sensationalistic takes on the material. In doing so, “Contagion” may be Steven Soderbergh’s most provocative film since “Traffic,” a powerful “what if?” that leaves you reeling from the implications that something like this could very well happen exactly as depicted.