‘Contagion’ keeps you at arm’s length — by design

Posted by · 11:02 pm · September 2nd, 2011

Spinning off of comments made in the podcast this morning, I liked Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” quite a bit. It doesn’t reinvent the outbreak movie wheel per se, but it manifests a unique cross-section of characters and dissects them clinically, perhaps the film’s (and screenplay’s) biggest stroke of genius.

There isn’t a lot of heart to be found in the film, though when it peeks through, it counts. And even then, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns aren’t concerned with lingering on it. They’re more interested in depicting a global community in crisis, dropping the players onto a Petri dish to observe — coldly — societal breakdown and human frailty.

The film pulses along (driven by precise editing by Stephen Mirrione and thumping electronic interludes by composer Cliff Martinez), rarely taking time to burrow into a character before pushing on to the next. Indeed, some threads are left dangling, handled in closing by mere suggestion. And it’s all of a piece with a film that seems determined to keep you at arm’s length — and for good reason.

The continued refrain “Don’t get too close to anyone” as it pertains to exposure and contamination kept ringing in my ears as actually a subtle theme. Soderbergh finds a sense of loss and longing in between the lines of a narrative of social disintegration and distancing. But the irony is the necessity of that distancing in an outbreak situation. And it’s saying something that heroes are ultimately not what they appear to be in this world. It’s the terror of chaos.

I feel like the film comes in for a soft landing ultimately and you could even say it pulls a punch or two in resolution, but that’s also very much by design, merely working against your expectations of fiction. Reality was a goal here, which is ultimately what sets the film apart in the genre. On the whole, it’s a well-crafted piece of work from a unique script by Soderbergh-collaborator-as-of-late Burns. Oscars seem like a bit of a stretch to me, but I think best in show from the cast is Jude Law. He gets a role with plenty to chew on and digs in ferociously.

More on all of this in detail in my interview with Burns from earlier this week. The film bows in Venice Saturday and opens nationwide September 9.

[Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures]

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

16 responses so far

  • 1 9-03-2011 at 12:11 am

    Pauly said...

    Thanks very much for this Kris. How were the rest of the cast, particularly Kate Winslet?

    Thanks in advance.

  • 2 9-03-2011 at 12:30 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Kate was really good, but she’s not in the film all that much. No one really is. Fishburne, Damon and Law have the bigger parts.

  • 3 9-03-2011 at 12:38 am

    Pauly said...

    Brilliant, thanks for letting me know.

  • 4 9-03-2011 at 1:49 am

    Dana Jones said...

    Yay I’m glad you put the review up, I was getting anxious after hearing Anne and your positive remarks about the film. I’ll have to see it when it comes out to have a better idea- but I do hope it stands a chance for a BP nom.

    How was Cotillard? I don’t think you guys mentioned her in the podcast either.

  • 5 9-03-2011 at 1:58 am

    Ali E. said...

    What about it’s make-up chances? I’ve been predicting this for a nod there…

  • 6 9-03-2011 at 5:32 am

    JJ1 said...

    Great write-up. Kris. As you said, this doesn’t seem like an awards play. But interesting to hear that stand-out Jude Law, writing, editing, & music all lend to this apparently stellar film. Can’t wait! :)

  • 7 9-03-2011 at 6:43 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Ali: Nah.

  • 8 9-03-2011 at 6:56 am

    Andrej said...

    Even though it’s very unlikely thanks to the new voting rules, I hope this movie manages to follow the lines of District 9 and to some extent, Inception, as the odd science fiction nominee (I’m not counting Avatar since it was a frontrunner), if it’s as good as you’ve written.

    Also, Kris, I don’t know if you’ve seen the series, but is Lawrence Fishburn reprising his role from CSI here in Contagion? It felt so in the trailer.

  • 9 9-03-2011 at 7:13 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No idea. Never watch it.

  • 10 9-03-2011 at 8:45 am

    DylanS said...

    I’ve always found that Soderberg seems to be held by many in a tier of directors that I just don’t think he’s actually proven himself worth. I find that there’s a clinical aspect to pretty much all of his films (the one’s I’ve seen anyway), but this could be the first one of his films that I could really dig, because as you suggest, that clinical approach is used as a distancing mechanism.

  • 11 9-03-2011 at 9:24 am

    Brett said...

    How was Cotillard?

  • 12 9-03-2011 at 10:22 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Good, not in it much.

  • 13 9-03-2011 at 12:17 pm

    James said...

    Great. Can’t wait. Be curious how this will fare with critics overall and if it could potentially find some box office success.

    When a friend had told me about it months ago I was unsure and then I saw that trailer and was sold at the realistic take they seem to be going for.

  • 14 9-04-2011 at 10:15 am

    Justine said...

    That’s a shame Winslet isn’t in the film all that much. She was the biggest draw for me.

  • 15 9-09-2011 at 8:43 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Not clinical or distancing enough, if you ask me.