The horror of Contagion isn’t the disease itself, the end result of the disease or the social unrest the disease causes. The film begins with the sound of a woman coughing. That woman dies, her son dies and the people who’ve come into contact with them start getting sick, too, but the film, which takes great pains to show simple human-to-human contact–hand shaking, money exchanging, drink serving, hand holding–has a larger point: We are living in the Lysol commercial from Hell. Germs are everywhere, and while we may eventually be able to isolate, reproduce and “cure” what ails us, we’re only really able to buy into placebos (Lysol, hand sanitizer) and hope for the best. The phrase “99% effective” is the world’s largest loophole: You can’t see these things coming, and you can’t see them die.
We can, however, see the effects of a virus play out on the people around us. The woman coughing, for instance, is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose husband Mitch (Matt Damon) follows her to the hospital. After her death, on his way home, Mitch receives a panicked call from the babysitter: his son has had a seizure. He finds his son dead. In the larger world beyond Minnesota, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization try to get a grip on the situation, sending out disease intelligence agents in the Midwest and China to track Beth’s movements, trying to figure out how a businesswoman could have gotten people sick in China, Chicago and Minneapolis. It’s not hard to figure out: she was in a crowded room. She was on an airplane. As we travel, so too do the germs we carry.
The real joy (if you can call it that) of this movie is watching how director Steven Soderbergh juggles the large and small scale dramas contained by Contagion. There’s Damon’s arc, where, in riot-ravaged Minnesota, he tries to protect his daughter from the virus and from other people. There’s the CDC arc, where Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tries to coordinate the investigation of Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) while protecting his future wife, providing for the research of Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and fending off the vitriol of popular conspiracy blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who may have found an over-the-counter cure. In China, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is kidnapped and held hostage until a village is given the vaccine.
Not everything holds up. Once Dr. Orantes is kidnapped, she disappears. Mitch, who has done everything he can to avoid breaking down in front of his daughter, has to put up with her as she goes from understanding to typical, complaining of being locked in a prison while the outside world goes crazy. Perhaps most disappointing is Krumwiede, who begins the film as a small-time blogger unable to get traction with the San Francisco Chronicle to a massively popular individual with 12-million unique views and a four-million dollar profit coming his way thanks to the boom in sales to his homeopathic cure. He is Sarah Palin’s image of the blogosphere–unwashed, unsexed and unhinged–and he eventually disappears into the ether without the film giving us a sense if he believes what he’s selling, or if he’s just in it for the money. Jude Law plays Krumwiede as a firebrand, which is about right, but he’s a firebrand without focus.
Beyond that, Soderbergh manages to keep everything aloft. I wondered, a little, how a world in crisis managed to keep the power and internet running, and I wish more was made of the film’s two or three governmental sub-plots, but by resisting the urge to sensationalize any given aspect of a global epidemic (when you think about it, 12 million worldwide visitors listening to a whackjob blogger is pretty marginal) Contagion manages to do what most films marketed as horror are unable to: scare its audience. A man in the theatre coughs. A woman sneezes. Everybody is touching their face with their hands that have touched the theatre seats, drink cups and popcorn bags that have, of course, touched other people who have touched other things. We all cringe, busy with the business of dying.
Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Matt Damon (Mitch), Jude Law (Alan Krumwide), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Cheever), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth), Kate Winslet (Dr. Mears), Marion Cotillard (Dr. Orantes), Jennifer Ehle (Dr. Hextall) and Elliot Gould (Dr. Sussman). Released September 9, 2011, by Warner Bros.