Numerous time during Steven Soderbergh's latest film, Contagion, characters tell others to keep their distance from people (in order to stop the spread of the highly contagious virus at the center of the film's plot). The film decides to take a similar approach to the characters by keeping its distance from them in its storytelling. While this does sound like an interesting concept, it is not executed in the final film as well as it seems on paper.
Steven Soderbergh once again brings out his documentary-like style that he won an Oscar for with Traffic. Soderbergh deserves credit for the numerous risks he has taken throughout his career. Upon completing a film it always seems like he tries to follow it up with it's complete opposite. The man has a lot of guts and a lot of talent. Unfortunately, not every risk pays off, and this is one of the risks. Soderbergh and to a lesser extent screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (whose decent work quite clearly takes a backseat in such a director's film) start off with an intense and intriguing story about how the world would react to a world wide pandemic. Each hand is perfectly shot as it touches every door handle, martini glass and human. The stakes are very real as we saw every character staring right into the eyes of a very deadly protagonist. Everything is done right to create a very scary atmosphere. Unfortunately, the second half of the film can't even carry a quarter of this intensity with it. This is never more apparent with the muddled ending. A stark transition from chaos to a happy ending completely betrays the film's documentary style feel. Add on top of that a final scene that completely forgets that the every other scene before it came from the perspective of humans and the documentary feel is all but destroyed. Worst of all, it gives answers away too easily, and yet leaves certain plot lines completely unfulfilled.
The much talked about Oscar-laden cast is actually worthy of the hype (when they get the appropriate screentime). Kate Winslet (as a CDC field operative) and Matt Damon (as a father in Minnesota) take away best in show honors. Winslet gives a heroic and the most frighteningly tragic performance in the film. She brings a lot of life to the film whenever she is on screen. Damon is probably given the best written character, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve any credit. At this stage in his career, it appears Damon could play any role and make it work. He is just the type of actor that is never too showy to the point that he sticks out like a sore thumb, but he is never so subtle that he is lost in the background. This skill is especially useful in a film that is trying to convey a documentary-like atmosphere.
Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law are the three other characters that get a substantial amount of screentime. Law is probably the best of the three. It is by no means one of his best performances, but it at least gives him the material that he works with best (over-the-top and hot headed like his character in Gattaca). I wish he would stick to these roles rather than waste his talent on the Sherlock Holmes franchise. Fishburne is solid as the film's closest thing to the lead (he is onscreen more than any other character). He won't be the first thing you take away from the film, but he holds his own with Oscar winners/nominees in almost all of his scenes. Ehle was good in her role and gets the film's best scene when she goes to see her father in a hospital. She showed enough skill to be able to portray a more morally-ambiguous character that the film only hints at (another disappointment from the creative side of this film).
Before getting into the list of actors that are given the shaft in this film, I should point out that this is the film for any of those Gwyneth Paltrow haters out there. Spoilers from the trailer She is on screen for only a few minutes and is completely destroyed from head to toe by the end of it. Spoilers end Unfortunately, the film decides to give only a minute (give or take a few seconds) of screentime to Oscar nominee and beloved character actor John Hawkes and reduced 3-time defending Emmy champ Bryan Cranston to the background for the majority of his screentime. How the most major offense against the cast is how it treats Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. Cotillard is given what could have been a very interesting subplot. The problem is the film forgets about her for a long stretch at the point where her plot gets interesting. She is given one more scene where she heads out on a rescue mission that is never resolved.
Despite some solid acting, Contagion is let down by a weak second half and probably the worst ending of the year.
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