by Justin Stewart and Matt Connolly
The previews before Contagion got me pumped for Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire—about a government-programmed female special-op who is betrayed by dastardly state agents. Her father is Bill Paxton, her second-hand man Ewan McGregor, and the details of the plot also pull in Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Fassbender. More stars than there are in heaven. The guy’s contact list is obviously impressive, and one can marvel at his prolificacy and still wonder if it sacrifices value. As crisp as they look and as briskly as they move, there’s an anonymous, assembly-line quality to his last few movies. Outside of a vague political leftiness, there’s not much authorial stamp you can place in The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!, or this, though all are eminently watchable.
For Contagion, Soderbergh has assembled another Grand Hotel–like cast to tell the scary story of a virus wiping out chunks of the world population. A sophisticated, fleetly edited first twenty minutes, scored to cool industrial music, take you on an international tour (with onscreen city names and population figures) following various hacking, red, sweaty victims as they stagger through city streets, unwittingly spreading the as-yet-unknown virus. A bilious, olive-hued Gwyneth Paltrow is the first image, and she’s coughing while on the phone with a man she just had sex with—an adultery for which the movie will thoroughly punish her. A puffy Matt Damon is her husband (Soderbergh forgot to tell him that he didn’t need to be fat for this one), a Minnesota family man who is the picture’s relatable every-Joe. Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet dutifully project authority as disease control agents, but Marion Cotillard, as a government doctor, is off— that toothy baby voice that was such a fun trick in Public Enemies turns out to be her actual and only American accent. The key character, though, might be Jude Law’s unscrupulous blogger—he’s assigned with spouting the Big Pharm conspiracy theories so the movie itself doesn’t have to, and looks sane by comparison. Yellow gap-teeth alert you to his wingnuttery.
Puffy orange biohazard suits are played for sight gags, especially when worn by bowl-cut comedian Demetri Martin, and there’s dry humor in the persistent tech language (“Weaponize the bird flu”). Contagion is coldly efficient, skin-crawling disease porn, and I thoroughly enjoyed it up to and including the abrupt ending. These “end of humanity” films have the built-in, ego-stroking thrill of making the present day seem utterly important. It makes you say, “Yes, my time is the end time!” —JS
That Haywire preview didn’t play before my screening, Justin, but I tracked it down. Fun stuff, indeed! (The crypto code-speak sounds especially jazzy: “Is the divorce final?” “The Barcelona deal went down…fix it!”) Soderbergh’s career has, as you say, been marked by a lack of clear film-to-film connectors, but he certainly knows his way around star-studded webs of intrigue: the devil-may-care capers of the Ocean’s trilogy; Out of Sight’s temporally splintered double and triple crosses; the “everything-is-connected” anxiety underlying Traffic’s drug war critique.
I liked Contagion all right, but it might have done better to either commit to Traffic-style topical import or dive headfirst into the conspiracy-mongering kineticism evidenced in the Haywire trailer. The film has that Soderbergh look of studied digital drabness, with seemingly every interior bathed in overcast gray or tinged with the sickly yellow of blown-out fluorescent lights. That patina of you-are-there atmospherics does little to sell the film’s stabs at state-of-the-union relevance. (A damning revelation involving a well-meaning CDC deputy director comes via Facebook and is discussed by Sanjay Gupta playing himself. It’s, like, life as we live it!) Nor does Contagion’s view of societal deterioration move beyond fairly perfunctory images of spontaneous downtown riots and round-the-block queues at the pharmacy. Far more creepy-crawly are those propulsive early montages of the virus’ initial spread. The incessant focus on hands grasping glasses, turning doorknobs, and grazing other human bodies gives commonplace moments of contact a queasy charge.
The Love Boat cast has its pleasures, but no one is given enough screen time or meaty material to make an impression beyond his or her sheer, starry presence. Damon carries that bloat with sad-eyed dignity, and Fishburne and Winslet’s terse workaholic doctors have some nice moments of weary connection. But poor Marion Cotillard! I agree that her helium-voiced take on the American dialect is confounding at best, but she deserved better than a kidnapping plot that the film proceeds to basically forget about for close to an hour.
Much of Contagion dissipated from memory after I left the theater, but I’ll admit that I remain weirdly fascinated by Gwyneth Paltrow’s infected adulteress. Her boozy night in a Hong Kong casino coming at us in brief, smeary flashbacks, she remains an unreachable enigma in a film otherwise purged of mystery. What thoughts lie behind those laughing eyes? We watch as her head gets sawed open, as doctors search for clues to the mysterious malady that killed her. I wouldn’t have minded a film that probed her mind, and not just dissected her brain. —MC