Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't Touch Anything . . . .

There are light spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read about this film already!

I saw Contagion this past weekend, and I'm just now getting around to writing a review, mostly because I'm still washing my hands;) I won't keep you in suspense of what I thought of it: it was pretty amazing, and absolutely terrifying. It is a frightening film that relies on none of the usual Hollywood conventions for such movies: no melodrama, no jump-scares, no bombastic score or huge explosions. It is grittily realistic and all the more horrifying for its sheer plausibility.

 The cast is impressive. This is a real ensemble piece, and rarely does any one member outshine the rest: Lawrence Fishburne, as head of the CDC, is just as human as Matt Damon's character, husband of Patient Zero and one of the few immune to the disease. Even small parts are given the chance to shine, like John Hawkes (who I love from his Deadwood days), who is memorable as a janitor at the CDC, and Chin Han, as a Chinese doctor helping Marion Cotillard's WHO investigator research where the pandemic started.

 For all the jargon rolling around the tongues of the doctors, officials, and investigators, it's a very human story. You feel the quiet desperation of Matt Damon as a father who fears for his only daughter, still not sick but who he could lose at any time just as quickly as he watched his wife and stepson succumb. He is terse, always with an edge of fear which is boiling under the surface and suppressed for the girl's sake but visible in moments like one memorable scene where they visit a grocery store and he encounters a sick woman around a corner. He instantly tells his daughter not to touch anyone, to remove her gloves, and they run back to their car.

The story jumps from Atlanta to Minnesota to Hong Kong to San Francisco to dozens of other places, as everyone tries to figure out where this started, and how its going to end. Marion Cotillard, as a WHO investigator, becomes part of a plotline highlighting the divide between how the weathy are treated at such times, and how the poor are often forgotten. She is turned into a hostage, her life desperately staged against the lives of poor children in a Chinese village, held ransom for doses of vaccine that these children would never receive otherwise.

And, the film doesn't shy away from killing off A-list stars. As though to really bring home the message that anyone can succumb to such an epidemic, we watch big names sicken and die along with everyone else, even as they are racing to find a cure. No one is safe, a statement the entire film seems eager to make clear in every scene.
The only plot-line that felt like it smacked of unnecessary drama for me was Jude Law's story, that of an unscrumpulous blogger who gains sudden fame by reporting on the illness in the early days and then tries to profit in a despicable way from people's panic. In a film that strives so hard for realism and shies diligently away from needless drama, this struck a bit of a "Hollywood" note for me. I could have done without his story, and I don't think the film would have suffered for it.

Overall, it was an absolutely wrenching and frightening film that played almost like a documentary of a future event. Each scene shouted, "Look at what could happen! This is how it would play out!" No one wails and gnashes their teeth or grasps for an Oscar here; everyone is simply doing their jobs and trying to survive under the most extreme of circumstances. I understand the WHO and the CDC have both endorsed this picture, and it's easy to see why: they are portrayed realistically, not as movie-magic heroes with bulging biceps but as people doing what they're trained to do, genuine, frightened, and brave.

If you're at all a hypochondriac, I urge you NOT to see this movie; even for me, who has never had such tendencies, I found myself feeling a little flu-like on the way home. But, if you like a good cerebral thriller that makes you seriously think (and might make you buy some anti-bac), then see Contagion.

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