Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion opens with a blank screen and the sound of a woman coughing. That woman is Gwyneth Paltrow, sitting at the airport bar in Chicago, on a layover from Hong Kong to Minnesota. It’s evident from her coughing and her voice when she answers a call on her cell phone that she’s caught something. We watch as she hands over her credit card to a bartender, who swipes the card, punches numbers on the till, and moves a few glasses around at the bar. Whatever Paltrow’s got has just been passed on.
At home in Minnesota the following day, she is visibly sick. Her husband Matt Damon watches helplessly as she convulses and falls to the floor, and soon after is declared dead. For all practical purposes she’s the first fatality of a lethal virus that is spreading across the world rapidly. Her young son becomes the second.
Contagion is a horror movie where the fear is palpable, and Soderbergh treats it with the pace of a thriller. Even as the virus travels from person to person, city to city, health officials race to find a vaccine, while also trying to control the flow of information, lest the public panic. Pretty soon entire cities are being quarantined, banks and offices are raided, and there’s rioting in food queues.
Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard star as medical professionals who must display courage and grace even under intense public pressure, and Jude Law stars as a paranoid blogger convinced that the government and pharmaceutical companies are conspiring to hide the truth.
On one level Contagion works as a riveting cautionary tale – it’s impossible not to come out shaken after a screening, convinced that something like this could so easily happen in the real world. On another level this is a story about crises of conscience – how far will you go to protect the ones you love? If you’re a top health official and you have an inside knowledge of what’s happening, do you share what you know with those you care for?
Soderbegh, whose flair for sustaining multiple storylines earned him an Oscar for Traffic, employs a similar narrative to tell this freakishly frightening story of great urgency. In the film’s final and possibly most chilling scene, the director shows us how the virus might actually have started.
I’m going with three and a half out of five for Contagion. Prepare to be rattled by this brilliant, brutal film.