'Contagion': critics test positive
"Contagion," the new viral thriller from director Steven Soderburgh, has garnered a healthy dose of buzz with its bold, "Psycho"-like dispatching of star Gwyneth Paltrow's character in the movie's opening minutes (as shown in the trailer). The film, written by Scott Z. Burns and featuring an ensemble cast (including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard) ventures into grim territory from there. And while any movie with such a staggering toll is unlikely to be beloved, exactly, critics do seem to agree that "Contagion" is compelling stuff.
The Times' Kenneth Turan says the film "tells a story for our time, a story of raging menace and out of control fear. It offers us thirty-something days in the life of a global pandemic, a lethal virus that travels like the wind and kills without a trace of mercy. This may not fit any conventional definition of entertainment, but it certainly keeps your eyes on the screen."
Michael Phillips, in the Chicago Tribune, says "Contagion" treads a line between weightiness and spectacle. He writes: "'Contagion' doesn't hype its own terrifyingly high stakes or body count, even as the body count heads into the millions. The result is not quite medicine and not quite cotton candy. But it works. It's made for grown-ups. After this summer's onslaught of highly variable superhero fodder, 'Contagion' arrives as a welcome antidote."
Both Turan and Phillips allude to a sense of coolness in Soderburgh's direction, something Manohla Dargis also picks up on in the New York Times. Dargis writes: "Mr. Soderbergh doesn’t milk your tears as things fall apart, but a passion that can feel like cold rage is inscribed in his images of men and women isolated in the frame, in the blurred point of view of the dying and in the insistent stillness of a visual style that seems like an exhortation to look."
Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, says the film "works as drama" and "is skillful at telling the story through the lives of several key characters and the casual interactions of many others." But Ebert finds fault in one of the narrative strands, writing: "One aspect of the film is befuddling. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a popular blogger with conspiracy theories about the government's ties with drug companies. His concerns are ominous but unfocused. … The blogger subplot doesn't interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction."
In the Star Ledger, of New Jersey, Stephen Whitty singles out one particular cast member for praise. Whitty writes, "Supporting actress Jennifer Ehle … who plays one of the whip-smart CDC researchers, is terrific. With her patterned stockings and small secret smile she’s a sexy bit of life in the lab; you see the glint in her eye as she talks about rare viral mutations, and you see how weirdly thrilling she finds all this, in spite of herself."
For L.A. Weekly film critic Karina Longworth, the film reflects its maker: "'Contagion' is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie — as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his 'Ocean's' trilogy, and as microscopically attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, 'The Girlfriend Experience.' It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie, and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart."
Now the only question is whether "Contagion's" word of mouth will spread as thoroughly as the film's virus.
Photo: Marion Cotillard in "Contagion." Credit: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures