Contagion - Movie review

U/A; Drama, Thriller
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude
Law, Lawrence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle
Rating: ****

Steven Soderbergh, easily one of the most versatile and competent filmmakers of the past two decades, recently announced that he would be taking an indefinite sabbatical from direction after completing all pending projects. The silver lining on that dark cloud is Contagion, the first of his 'victory lap' films. An absorbing techno-thriller that effortlessly weaves in and out of solid docudrama territory, Contagion boasts of an Oscar-winning cast that Terence Mallick would have been proud of. It also achieves the rare feat of letting the gripping story take precedence over star value.

Contagion, a familiar tale told in an unfamiliar way, tracks the rise and fall of a global pandemic -- a communicable disease that spreads simply through touch -- and presents every situation, character and emotion as it is: stark, raw and without comment. Fans of Soderbergh's Traffic will approve as, with this movie, he revisits some of the cinematic peaks scaled by his more-than-a-decade-old drug war epic.

Films on global epidemics have been made several times before but most of them choose to focus far too much on the aftermath of such an apocalypse: the looting, the lawlessness and the revolutions. Here, Soderbergh eschews the obvious and proceeds to give us a chilling, blow-by-blow account of everything that takes place: the scattered early news reports, the closed-door meetings between civic bodies and health officials, the rapidly increasing panic, the full-fledged anarchy; and finally, the glimmer of quiet hope.

One may complain that it's difficult to empathise with the characters since the script doesn't have the time or space to really flesh them out (that is not true, by the way; more screen time does not necessarily translate to better characterisation). However, Contagion has loftier aims; the disease is the central character here, and all the talented men and women around it merely supporting players.

It helps that the aforementioned men and women are all at the top of their individual games. Amidst sparkling performances from everyone, Damon and Winslet stand out for their superior performances (he as a hapless suburban father immune to the disease, she as a health board official sent in to investigate the epidemic), while Law is marvellous as Alan Krumwiede, a self-proclaimed internet prophet who propagates conspiracy theories against the authorities.

Scott Z Burns' script is near perfect, giving each character just enough wiggle-room without letting the pace flag. Despite being heavily event-oriented, the script remembers to treat its characters like humans - this is evident in many scenes, like the one between Dr Hextall (a CDC doctor working on a cure, played by Ehle) and her dying father. The only major bump in this ride is the track involving Dr Leonara Orantes (Cotillard), a WHO official who gets kidnapped in China as security against being first in line to get any possible vaccine against the disease. It's a sub-plot that is brought to a boil far too early in the film and is subsequently made to quietly simmer for too long.

Contagion isn't Soderbergh's finest film (the jury is still out on whether it's Traffic or Sex, Lies And Videotape), but it is definitely his most effective one in years. Don't be too surprised if you find yourself looking at doorknobs and taps more suspiciously than usual after watching this movie. Hypochondriacs, you have been warned.

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