Contagion (Warner Bros. Pictures, PG-13)

Contagion is structured like a serial killer movie, à la The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, but instead of the killer being a human it’s a virus.

 

 

Steven Soderbergh is in a lot of ways one of my all-time favorite directors. When he puts his mind to it he can do basically anything—from weird little indie films that no one sees but are completely brilliant (i.e. 1996’s Schizopolis) all the way to should-be-bad Hollywood films like 1998’s Out of Sight, which turned out to be one of the best genre pictures a major studio has produced since the ‘70s. And yes, sometimes he fails—1991’s Kafka, 2002’s Full Frontal—but even his failures are interesting. So while it’s true that Soderbergh hasn’t made a film I truly love since 2000’s Traffic, I’ve had no hard time watching the eleven or so films he’s made since. Oh, and did I mention that he’s prolific?

His new film, Contagion, is the best work he’s done in years. Before even seeing the film you get that it’s going to veer more toward his Traffic-style awards-worthy mode rather than his Bubble-style experimentation or Ocean’s Eleven mass entertainment, given that it (Contagion) has a large cast with people like Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard alongside Soderbergh regular Matt Damon. The problem is that the movie is kind of a tough sell, cast aside. It’s more or less about the political and popular reactions in the face of a brand new, spreading-like-wildfire epidemic that is killing the world’s population at an alarming rate. It’s a thriller, generally an easy genre to market (especially if it’s a good one, which this one is), but it’s a thriller that sounds overly talky and inward, which it isn’t really. Let’s put it this way, and this is not an exaggeration for sales purposes: Contagion is structured like a serial killer movie, à la The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, but instead of the killer being a human it’s a virus. It even has great serial killer-style one-liners like, “It’s figuring us out faster than we’re figuring it out.” Come on! Who cares if it’s a human or a bug killing people? And wait until you hear Cliff Martinez’ creepy score, which is the most unsettling chunk of music written for a film this side of Clint Mansell.

The cast, while uniformly excellent, are almost a red herring; this is an ensemble piece (and a short one at that—it breezes by at 102 minutes), so if you’re going for one particular actor you’re going to be disappointed that they don’t get much screen time. Further, while the first three-fourths of the film is really strong, it loses its way somewhat in the end; not that the ending is unsatisfying so much as that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who previously collaborated with Soderbergh and Damon on The Informant!) kind of back themselves into a corner. Also, the film leaves quite a few loose threads hanging, which doesn’t generally bother me (often I even like it), but in this film it feels like a flaw. Still, those are minor quibbles when compared to the fun I had in the world the film creates for most of its duration. | Pete Timmermann

 

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