Soderbergh and Contagion – Florals and fawning.

<MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS>

We had a date-night tonight. So I chose a movie about a deadly out-of-control virus which kills humans by making them writhe convulsively foaming at the mouth and makes their skin turn a mottled hue as they breathe their last.

I’m really romantic.

And we both thoroughly enjoyed it. Me more than the missus because I got home and immediately decided to let my burgeoning feelings flow all over a post.

If too many cooks spoil the broth, Steven Soderbergh is Gordon Ramsay keeping all their talented butts in check. He’s adept at handling ensembles. If you’ve experienced the smooth sophistication of Ocean’s 11, 13 (12 was marred by a ghastly plot) or the arty, non-linear Full Frontal you’ll know what I mean. It’s as if he compels stars to leave their reputations at the door before they sign up for his movies.

He achieves the same with Contagion, not just through his ability to extract convincing performances from a cast that includes Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Matt Damon, but also through his brutal treatment of their characters. If you watch movies by other mainstream directors (like a certain Michael Bay, for instance), the hair and makeup for big stars remain impeccable throughout his staple offerings – action movies. Not Soderbergh. From a convulsing, wan Paltrow to Kate Winslet looking cold and unlamented in a body bag, he uses them as props to further the real star of the movie, the story.

It’s a pounding thriller that examines two aspects of our ability to handle disasters: systems and human nature. The movie chronicles the race against a virus that threatens to wipe out 1 in every 7 humans on the planet if left unchecked. Response times are hampered by a distributed and bureaucratic setup, a fear-mongering online personality (Jude Law) and the ensuing panic and mayhem.

He tackles other issues like homeopathic remedies (let’s just say he’s not a fan), the power of online word-of-mouth and the ability of a credible few to influence millions, even if their message is poisonous. There are a lot of technical discussions which only add to the suspense and not the puzzlement of the viewer. When they discuss R-nought rates, you want them to continue explaining it further because the details pull you inexorably into the storyline and its sense of urgency.

Soderbergh seamlessly runs a thread of human nature into this complicated tapestry of doomsday scenarios and bio-technicalese. In the 80/20 of human emotions, he brings out the “80” through the predictable, selfish response to save self, then loved ones and if time and resources permit, friends. There are situations reminiscent of the recent London riots with vivid images of arson and looting, although the motive in this case is to hoard food, obtain vaccines and survive, rather than use discontent and social inequity as an excuse for thuggery.

For me, the remaining “20” is the core of the movie. It is those critical moments when characters look beyond themselves and see a higher cause (even if it can only be articulated as the rather cheesy “saving humanity”). And Soderbergh never allows the selflessness of these characters to appear trite or cliched. He makes it clear that the work of CDC/WHO employees is as dangerous as troops warring on a battlefield. Especially because the enemy is unknown, the strategy is unknown, the weapons are unknown and yet these brave few venture into uncharted territory coming into contact with infected victims in an attempt to identify root cause.

Also wondrous is his ability to meld feelings into this mix. There’s a scene toward the end of the movie when Damon’s character browses through the last few pictures of his wife on her camera before she fell victim to the virus. And suddenly the urgency of the timeline evaporates as he allows the first real feeling of loss to wash over him as he holds his head in his hands and cries. It’s touching and masterful.

The story narration is much closer to “Traffic”, a visceral look at drug-trafficking in the US and Mexico. I’ll call Soderbergh the Frederick Forsyth of movies in his attention to detail and crisp execution. Even when his stories are non-linear he  manages to pull you along either with a sense of urgency or by dropping tantalizing hints that offer clues to the connect.

Contagion begins with a title card that says “Day 2.” That mystery is solved only as the movie ends. But don’t worry, it’s a delicious and disturbing wait in that seeming anachronism. Go watch it.

5 responses to “Soderbergh and Contagion – Florals and fawning.”

  1. daddysan says :

    Thanks Laya.

    In fact, what you mention is a perfect example of how malleable he forces his stars to be. Pitt is characterized as a hustler of celebrities and he uses Topher (clearly less popular than Pitt himself) as the celeb and Pitt settles into the background. The conversations between Clooney and Pitt aren’t of two celebrities being awesome but of two witty conmen and their shop-talk. I don’t see how this is an example of Soderbergh succumbing to star power – much the opposite.

    The way he can cram 4-5 big name movie stars into one film without derailing the story or scenes in itself is proof he commands more star power than the stars themselves.

  2. Laya Maheshwari (@lazygarfield) says :

    Good review, but with all due respect I must vehemently disagree on one point.

    I don’t think it’s correct to make a generalized statement like Soderbergh’s non-starry treatment of stars, especially while using the Ocean’s trilogy as an example because that is, in fact, a perfect example of using star-power in lieu of actual characterization (and I din’t mean that in a bad way).

    Look at the way he uses the Topher Grace cameo in 11 to reflect off Brad Pitt. Look at the cryptic conversations between Brad Pitt and George Clooney in 13.

    He removed the glam from all the stars in this because it suited his vision for the movie. But it wouldn’t be right to say that’s his general method of working. Just my 2 cents.

  3. daddysan says :

    Well said. I can understand how this merciless treatment of characters can make it difficult to empathize with any of them, but the way to overcome such a disconnect is to keep viewers glued to the story and the movie does it really well.

  4. Gradwolf says :

    Spot on. I did feel this was extremely well directed/executed film.

    And the London riots were exactly what I was reminded of too. A few months ago during a discussion of different kind but concerning human nature, a man I admire talked about how it would be a matter of weeks for a civilized society to turn barbaric. That is one aspect this film touched upon convincingly, among other things.

    I liked how they showed everyone’s perspective, quite disconnected from one another, and therefore, how it is difficult to make out a hero or a villain here. Ultimately everyone is trying to survive, some grounded enough to do their duty, some not.

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