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9.12.2011

Contagion


Steven Soderbergh's latest is a very strong film. It unfolds with narrative urgency (the running timeline of the epidemic's progress is quite compelling) and some startling intimacy that provides some very uncomfortable moments. Soderbergh's tight close-ups on the blotchy, feverish victims--on their credit cards, their hands in public bowls of peanuts, their frequent touching of their faces and their uncovered coughs--are unsettling. You'll turn and look at the others in the theater. I dare you not to...

There was a guy in the theater that was absolutely hacking up a lung throughout the whole picture. It certainly added a level of diegetic authenticity to the film, and it drove me up the wall! My two-year-old daughter knows well enough to cover her mouth when she coughs, but this guy was doing that at a movie called Contagion!

It's a sprawling story. A very good cast carries out the piece with aplomb and pathos. My two favorite turns were given by Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle. These are the doctors that address the epidemic at its outset, and that test the vaccines as the disease mutates. Both bring a sense of exhaustion and perseverance to their roles, and they hit their notes perfectly.

It covers a lot of territory in such a short time. From the shortages of medicine to the looting and profiteering by scumbags like Jude Law's toothy Alan Krumweide, we see the worst that humanity has to offer in times of crisis. Civility breaks down, as does our national infrastructure. The detached news reports are all too authentic, and there is a chilling shot of the vaccine being archived next to the SARS and H1N1 vaccines. At one juncture in the film, a reporter discusses absenteeism by law enforcement reaching 25%, and that's a pretty scary glimpse behind the veil.

The film delves into the international reaction to the disease, with an unresolved narrative thread concerning a hostage negotiation for vaccine doses. It's the only fault, this unresolved story line, in an otherwise great film (A-).

It feels all too real, and the story is one that begs for audience introspection. How would you react to such a pandemic wildfire? What would you do to keep your loved ones safe? What is "normal," and to what extent are we our brothers' keepers?

There is a bouncy, digital score that feels like it was ripped from the best thrillers of the late 1980s. The film itself, gritty and fast-paced, would have been at home in that era as well. It's a throwback--an adult film with a downer plot that moves well based on strong acting and solid filmmaking craft.

And it'll make you think twice when you're in the back room, folding laundry, and the newscaster on the television in the other room, in typical exuberant nonchalance, offers a tiny report about the latest flu virus ripping out of the interior of Mexico or the streets of Hong Kong. Tough stuff, indeed.

Now go see the movie, and don't wipe your eyes. Hey you! Stop touching your face!

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