Movie Review: Contagion

by Trey Hock on September 9, 2011

in Print Reviews

With most films about sickness or contamination, the virus is employed as a socio-political metaphor either for other more emotionally charged illnesses such as HIV or for the fear and distrust surrounding cultural, ethnic or racial lines. In his new film “Contagion,” director Steven Soderbergh understands that a global epidemic is scary enough on its own without adding any forced allegorical content. He has the wherewithal to just let the virus be a virus.

Sickness on a global scale has inherent political, social, and ethical problems embedded within the various solutions, but it is also personal. The people that are dying are family members, mothers, husbands, and children.

The stories that run through “Contagion” include CDC director, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), as he balances the pursuit of a vaccine by Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) with the social and political implications of if accomplished, when and who would get it first.

WHO official Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) attempts to locate the first documentable case of the new virus, but soon gets entangled in the global political struggle that surrounds the disease.

CDC field officer Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) explores domestic incidents of transmission and attempts to make practical decisions to confront the spread of the disease. Mears comes into direct contact with the Emhoffs, the family that makes the entire film personal.

Infected abroad, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from a business trip to Hong Kong. Along the way she infects coworkers, cab drivers, a lover, and her own son. Mitch (Matt Damon), her husband and one of the few who is immune to the disease, is left to deal with the aftermath not only in his own life, but the world around him.

The difficulty with any highly conceptual subject matter is how to make it visual. In the case of a virus, one can show symptoms of the illness, but this just gets at the physical effects of the disease.

Soderbergh, also the cinematographer, uses controlled shallow depths of field and tight framing to isolate his characters, all the while intercutting those shots with an overwhelming number of shots of hands touching faces, catching coughs, touching railings, tables, dinnerware. We realize quickly that though the characters are trapped and psychologically isolated by the spreading epidemic, the physical reality is that they are surrounded by opportunities for transmission.

As we move deeper into the film, the viewer needs to understand the growing scale of the global illness. Dr. Mears searches for locations to triage and quarantine the sick. She enters an enclosed stadium and Soderbergh uses an enormous wide shot, with huge depth of field to make the scope of the situation clear. Dr. Mears tells her assistant that this building will work well. Now she needs three more just like it.

Shot composition throughout is masterful. In one particularly powerful moment, Dr Hextall stares from the depths of her biological isolation suit. She is centered in the frame and stares out to the viewer, the red of her suit contained within the stark white of the room. She is utterly alone in her pursuit of a vaccine and the only hope to stem the tide of a rapidly spreading disease.

My only real complaint, and it is a minor one, comes with music choices and the sound mix at a couple of moments early on. As the virus spreads and people grapple with what they are dealing with, there is a moment where a disjointed jazz melody blares at an awkward and almost uncomfortable volume. I found it distracting and it pulled me out of the film. Fortunately these moments were relatively small and incidental.

Soderbergh balances size and scale with personal fears, and juggles multiple story lines and an enormous cast. He creates a film filled with political tension and medical drama, and manages to do so without any moralistic summation or overly clever lessons. He just gives us a well-crafted visual story filled with compelling characters.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin September 9, 2011 at 12:47 pm

“The difficulty with any highly conceptual subject matter is how to make it visual.” So true. I really like your examples in this review of how Soderbergh made this story visually compelling as well. It’s something I think a lot of people wouldn’t even pick up on, but he did a lot with a little here — considering how dense the story was.

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2 Trey Hock September 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Yeah I’m really glad that we both tackled this one, because “Contagion” was jam packed full of stuff. It helps that Soderbergh is a director, cinematographer, and editor (though he didn’t edit this film), because it allows him to control in a very complete way everything that goes into his frame. This film could have been moralistic or preachy it could have been openly political, but Soderbergh level of control avoided those pitfalls.

Your review was awesome, by the way. You got a ton of review into your minute-thirty.

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3 Tony T September 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Guys I think the film completely missed the boat on extending to the audience the fear that should have encompassed it. I’m not sure how it could have been done, hey I’m just a popcorn hound, but it wasn’t there. My friend fell asleep. The movie said 1 in 12 would get sick and 1 and 4 would die which equates to 125 million deaths, that is staggering. Looking at those numbers alone don’t you think the movie missed something?

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4 Eric Melin September 21, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I really enjoyed how he got that concept across. I think a couple shots of panic were enough, bolstered by the Damon story and his sense of personal fear/loss.

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5 Trey Hock September 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Tony, I think that Soderbergh did a great job at making the personal fear visual. I don’t need another fast cut, heavy handed movie about end times. If you do there are any number of fun popcorn end of the world movies. Soderbergh gives us a thoughtful piece about panic, personal (if not global) loss, and ultimately survival.

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