No Immunity From Fear: “Contagion” (2011) Review

“The average person touches their face two-or-three thousand times a day… three-to-five times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains, elevator buttons, and each other.” However true or exaggerated this might be, it is the foundation for the horrors that drive Steven Soderbergh’s chiller Contagion. With its all-star cast comprised primarily of Oscar winners (Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet) and nominees (Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law), Contagion was promoted as a cross between drama, horror, and medical thriller, and with good reason. While it is not what one would think when hearing the phrase “horror film,” Contagion defies this by being one of the scariest movies in recent memory.

When Beth Emhoff (a mere cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow) comes home from a business trip to China, something’s off. She’s queasy, she’s coughing, she’s flushed one moment, pale the next. And she doesn’t live long enough to find out she’s infected several other people, each one en route to another massive group of people, with a novel, and immediately lethal, contagion. When Beth dies, her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) discovers he is immune to the virus… but the virus itself is the least of his worries. While CDC bigwig Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends the green EIS officer Dr. Erin Mears (a particularly effective Kate Winslet) to investigate the possibility of bioterrorism, the World Health Organization sends epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (a rather isolated Marion Cotillard) to track the virus back to its source. As the race for a vaccine commences, and the virus is exploited (its exploiters represented by a detestable Jude Law) and society falls apart, Orantes and Mears both find themselves in grave danger, and even the immune Mitch finds himself in constant danger. The threat of the extremely lethal disease itself is ultimately nothing compared to that of the fear it creates.

This movie is terrifying, but in a different way than most horror and thriller films. It takes an entirely plausible (and mortifying) concept, and expands upon it in the most realistic ways imaginable. The style is deliberately sterile and detached, almost clinical. The detachment makes it even scarier… because it shows that if this scenario were to happen, anyone would be fair game (as Soderbergh proves by dispatching some of its biggest stars, and rather early, one might add). It covers every major angle: The surviving family members and the immune struggling to deal the devastation; the doctors scrambling to find the answers while putting their own lives on the line; the public’s reaction and the subsequent shutdown of society; and the lengths people will go to protect their own interests and the level of deception they will sink to (both illustrated in many ways through Marion Cotillard’s storyline and the predicament her character, Orantes, finds herself in).

Soderbergh’s direction is top-notch, the score plays almost as elevator music. It is never melodramatic and it never takes sides (except, perhaps, in the case of Jude Law’s dirty bastard of a blogger). The performances are strong across the board, with stellar performances by Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, and Jennifer Ehle. Cotillard and Winslet are victims of restricted screentime (because of the multi-angle nature of the film), but manage to make an impression, especially in their respective final scenes.

Last but not least, the film is extremely informative to the reality of how much is known and unknown about fighting viruses. The film is almost cruel in its frank portrayal of how far in the dark its heroes and heroines are, but provides a pretty accurate insight into the reality of disease control.

Whether you like the film or not is all a matter of personal taste. I myself loved it. I knew what I was getting when I went in. If the movie isn’t exciting enough for you, that’s all a matter of personal taste, but the quality of this film is undeniable, and I WOULD call it one of the best horror/thriller films of the last decade. Remember: No one is immune to fear.

–Joshua Dean