Contagion – Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Drama. A mysterious plague moves fast through the world killing millions. 109 minutes Color 2011.
* * * *
I don’t believe this film succeeds in accomplishing what it set out to do, which is to incite. But I don’t know if that is what it set out to do, because the massive and spectacular documentary details of its execution, none of which we are allowed to dwell upon either, causes us to lose identity with the characters – such that the characters, in terms of narration, are executed tokenly – bigger than a cameo, smaller than a part — although they are not acted that way. A good example is the final scene of Marion Cottillard to whom is delivered the news that she has unwittingly participated in a fraud, and she simply gets up to rectify it presumably by telling those defrauded that they have been. It’s not enough. And over and over again the spectacle of ruination of the mysterious killer disease is shown, to the dead loss of all of the main characters, except in a sort of follow the dots plotting. But characters are not dots. So there is nothing to latch onto in the human realm, leaving the arrangement of the plague to look like a put-up-job, a numb what-if. The characters turn up here and there and are given very little screen time, leaving us with a fancy show of contagion, which does not frighten because no one we know is threatened. Why? Because the disease kills immediately; it never threatens, it just does you in. Marion Cotillard plays a research person, and she really should give up playing non-character leads in American films. She is not a leading lady. She is completely cold on the screen. It is as if she were just waiting to find another monster to play. Gwyneth Paltrow is, as usual, an unexceptionable actress, in the part of the first carrier of the disease, as is Kate Winslet who goes out earnestly to stop the plague. Laurence Fishburne is the honcho in charge of Disease Control, and most of what he does is to transmit or suppress what is supposed to be scary information. Jude Law as an Aussie yellow journalist who early latches onto the story and attempts to radicalize it – but succeeds only in making it a scandal – seizes the screen between his uneven teeth and shakes it like a mutt shaking a dead rag. But it is Matt Damon who anchors the film; he’s a very fine actor, if one of modest means, and he deserves a lot of credit for way he holds this role. The acting is unadorned, and no one does a star turn, which is to the director’s credit. The fault lies with the writer’s conception that we could have a movie about a plague that looks like a documentary, is played like a documentary, but is really a whole sea of confetti made from cut up newsprint barged into at various points by neat O’Henry twists.