Monday, February 27, 2012

Short Take: Contagion

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script credited to Scott Z. Burns, is an ensemble disaster melodrama. But it goes out of its way to avoid the schlockiness typical of films in the genre. The story follows the progress of a worldwide pandemic. We see it strike its first victims, the efforts of scientists and government officials to contain it, and the societal upheavals that result. Soderbergh and Burns present it all with relentless logic and intelligence. And for roughly the first half, the picture is a triumph. It never goes out of its way to shock the audience. The filmmakers know the scenario is horrifying enough. They only intrude on the story to emphasize how vulnerable everyone is, and even that’s understated. The trope of portent is nothing more than hands touching things. The suspense intensifies in accord with the growth of the calamity. But the film loses its tautness in the second half. It remains absorbing, but the rigor and understatement of the storytelling start to work against its dramatic arc. The suspense hits a plateau, and the flattened tone deprives the resolution of the lift it should provide. The film ends up feeling more like a tutorial than a story. The uniformly strong cast includes Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, John Hawkes, and as the plague’s initial victim, Gwyneth Paltrow. Soderbergh, using his nom de camera Peter Andrews, provided the outstanding cinematography. Stephen Mirrione is responsible for the equally superb editing, and Cliff Martinez contributed the terrific electronic score.

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