A sick man touches a handrail in Hong Kong; a Japanese businessman in First class coughs and puts down his plastic glass; a young boy in Minnesota wipes his nose and pushes the door at his primary school. Steven Soderbergh’s newest film features many sequences and incidents as seemingly innocent as these but when the enemy is a virus, every sniffle and wheeze is as ominous as a teenager heading out to the lake alone in a slasher pic.
Detailing the life of a speculative epidemic, Contagion makes no secret of being influenced by the recent health scares with Avian Flu and Swine Flu and makes compellingly realistic case for how we as a society would handle such a situation. Families deal with sudden losses, government bureaucrats worry about balancing their budgets in the face of thousands of people dying and scientists stare down microscopes, desperately searching for a cure. It’s all pretty heavy stuff but played with utter believability.Even scenes of small-town Americans looting their high street in the face of a plague seem well observed in light of what we witnessed during the London riots this summer.
In less capable hands, the all-star cast featuring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet could have easily turned this film into an Ocean’s Eleven/Outbreak mash-up but the restraint of the performances really prop up the reality of the story as we discover early on that no star is too famous to be killed off. Damon’s performance as a grieving and protective father is particularly affecting and empathetic: he keeps getting better in every film and is truly one of our finest movie stars.
Only Jude Law’s snaggle-toothed Assange-alike conspiracy blogger jars slightly. Having his anti-capitalist activist be the only character trying to profit from the epidemic seems an unusually ultra-Conservative statement to make in this particular story.
Beautifully shot by Soderbergh himself (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews) and backed by a tense score from Cliff Martinez (Drive, Solaris), Contagion is a thrilling as any horror film you’re likely to see this year and will have you thinking twice about what you touch next time you’re out on the streets.