The scariest cinematic image of the year is a lingering shot of a grimy pole on a public bus. A coughing man had just been holding that pole, and after he gets off the bus Steven Soderbergh keeps his camera trained on the metal. We don’t see the brutally infectious disease he has left behind, but we can feel it all the same. Feel it crawling on our hands, feel it getting into our blood, feel it tickling the back of our throats…
Buy stock in Purell. Soderbergh’s new film, Contagion, is a terrifying (and all too terrifyingly plausible) story about a massive pandemic that cuts through the global population in just a matter of weeks. Told in a sprawling, multiple-storyline style not unlike Traffic, Contagion brings us from the opening moments of the outbreak through to the eventual aftermath. And it does it with a fierce, driving pace that turns what could have been a stupid, bloated mess into a smart, thrilling ride.
The disease begins in Hong Kong and comes back to America in Gwyneth Paltrow, who brings it into the home she shares with Matt Damon and their son. Paltrow is one of the first victims, and her death - spoiled by the film’s marketing campaign - is in many ways Contagion’s Psycho moment. Here is one of the biggest stars in the movie killed off in an ugly way - and that’s before the autopsy scene. It’s the second worst thing that’s been done to Paltrow’s head on film.
Other stories grow out of this. Jude Law is a blogger who first discovers the seeds of the pandemic, but can’t get anyone to listen to him. Laurence Fishburne is a big timer at the CDC who is trying to do the best thing while also protecting his loved ones. Kate Winslet is a field operative tasked with going into gyms crammed with the dying sick, attempting to trace the disease back to its origins. Marion Cotillard is a World Health Organization scientist also trying to stanch the flow of illness.
But at the center of it all is Damon. Filled with honest Midwestern dignity and a quiet kind of personal heroism, Damon reminds us why he is one of the great movie stars of the age. While his story is the one with the most obvious emotional side, Scott Z Burns’ script specifically underplays all of that stuff, focusing first and foremost on the science and survival sides of the scenario. Which means that Damon (and the rest of the cast) has to create three dimensional characters without your standard crutches of speeches or big emotional confrontations. Everyone does this exceptionally well, but Damon is incredible. Struggling to survive and protect his remaining daughter, he tries to maintain decency and humanity in the face of an unbelievable crisis. It’s a powerfully subtle performance, one that may be too quiet and reserved for the Academy to notice - which is a pity.
Damon isn’t the only character staying human and decent. As the world falls apart, as quarantine zones devolve into demilitarized zones, most of the main characters stand tall. This isn’t a film where the CDC is evil or incompetent. This isn’t a film where the government is using the crisis as an opportunity to remove civil liberties. Contagion posits a world where scientists and doctors are doing their best, where bureaucrats are attempting to maintain the structures of civilization. While the movie is almost unrelentingly tense and scary as the outbreak spreads, it keeps this heart of hope in the form of civil servants and physicians and researchers who are just doing their level best. In a cinematic world where the people in charge are usually corrupt, and where the heroes are usually guys who blow things up, it’s incredibly inspiring to see rank and file people presented in such a positive light.
There’s this heart of hope, but it’s surrounded by lots of scariness. Contagion is a crackerjack end of the world movie, one that reclaims deserted streets and martial law from zombie films and brings them back to the plague. Society breaks down fast, but after a period of strange disbelief. I think Burns’ script gets it exactly correct: at first there’s a detached feeling of something bad is happening in the world, but by the time people react it’s too late. Cities burn and looters run rampant, and everything falls apart. But unlike a zombie movie the threat is invisible; the virus lurks on doorknobs and on poles, floats in the air, hides in the kiss of your wife.
And then it mutates.
Contagion will give germaphobes panic attacks, and it will spawn OCD ways for many. This isn’t the cheesiness of Outbreak, it’s the grim reality of a documentary about the Spanish Flu, which killed 3% of the Earth’s population in 1918. Contagion is like the first half of The Stand, before all the weird God stuff started coming in - the really good, scary stuff, the bits that made you afraid of your own cough. Contagion is a movie that will make you compulsively aware of how often you touch your face (three thousand times a day!) and it will make you scared of the guy sneezing two rows down in the theater.
There are some flatfooted bits, especially a terrible scene at the end between Fishburne and John Hawkes, but Contagion is otherwise sleekly smart and stomach-churningly scary. This feels like how it would really happen, if it were to really happen. When it really happens.