The Moviegoer: "Contagion" and the Horror of Purposelessness

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Frankly, I need to see Contagion (Dir. Steven Soderbergh) again, because I remain conflicted as to whether the film is quietly effective horror or nihilistic storytelling.

Steven Soderbergh made headlines a few weeks ago when his buddy Matt Damon was quoted as saying that the filmmaker was on the verge of retirement. One of Damon’s comments was particularly striking: “[Soderbergh’s] kind of exhausted with everything that interested him in terms of form. He’s not interested in telling stories. Cinema interested him in terms of form and that’s it.” Contagion is very fine filmmaking. It boasts good performances all around and particularly strong ones from Kate Winslet and Jude Law. And, in terms of form, Soderbergh delivers a restrained, calculated depiction of an epidemic onslaught. And, yet, the story Soderbergh tells seems flat in a way.

This is not to say that Contagion is not compelling. The film’s frighteningly realistic depiction of the worldwide spread of a deadly disease is riveting. Yet, no one moment or scene seemed more important than another. That is to say, Contagion lacked a certain element of significance. This blunt-plausibility approach to form works for me in a film like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, but I’m not so sure about a film depicting the struggle to maintain a sense of humanity in the fight for survival.

While the film achieves a kind of quiet horror in its plausibility, any hopeful details seem just as muted as the rest of the film’s disastrous tone and, therefore, have an improbability about them. Put differently: if there is not much in terms of an underlying purpose to the film’s story-arc, then the depictions of hope seem improbable, for these two—purpose and hope—are inextricable.

Contagion is comprised of several interweaving stories featuring characters facing the manifold consequences of the spreading virus. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter, Jory, struggle to survive following the death of Mitch’s wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and step son. Meanwhile, Dr. Ellis Cheaver (Laurence Fishburne), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) race to maintain societal order by working tirelessly and, in some cases, heroically to come up with a vaccine. However, it is not just the virus that is contagious; so, too, is the anarchic nature of humanity in the absence of law and order. Conspiracy theories, looters, ransom, and murder all abound in the absence of societal organization.

Due in large part to the film’s compelling performances, I felt for these characters and the dread of their plight. Yet, none of these characters overtake the lead role that the virus plays in the film. And the centrality of the virus over the characters is related to the story’s flatness. The film, like the virus, seems to lack purpose.

That the virus is the lead seems most evident in the film’s final abrupt scene. It closes by depicting the random nature of the virus’s origin. And this is the horror of epidemic disasters: their seeming purposelessness. There is no apparent enemy to blame. Victims are claimed with no rhyme or reason. Truly, this kind of deathly indifference is horror personified.

But while ontological purposelessness is truly horrific, I can’t help but wonder if there is a purpose behind even the seeming chance origin of contagion. Perhaps there is warrant for Soderbergh’s storytelling to be imbued with something more.

Is Contagion effective horror or nihilistic storytelling? In the end, perhaps both—in a complementary way that is not unlike the flatness which accompanies Johnny Marco’s aimlessness in Coppola’s story of disorientation.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Ugh. I hope it didn’t turn out that the trees were trying to kill everyone like in The Happening.

  • Ted Herring

    Agreed, I found it downright boring – I yawned more than once. So many things done well, except for the script. A deadly virus in and of itself is scary, but it’s the various reactions to the epidemic that fell incredibly flat. That could have been a great story, and I went in with somewhat high expectations. I wouldn’t even tell a friend to go see a matinee of this film, perhaps it was too much of a film and not an entertaining movie like it was advertised.

  • http://popparables.com/ Keri

    You verbalized exactly why I don’t want to see this film. The deeper message here is that there is no purpose to pain and suffering. There is no hope for reconciliation and redemption. I find that disturbing because it is not the truth. But, if you believe there is no God or that God doesn’t love His people, this is the reality. And, that is so very depressing.

  • Nick

    Hey everyone – thanks for commenting! Just for the record: I’m not totally down on Contagion. Some of the characters are certainly admirable, and the film is well done. I may even like it more a second time.

    I don’t know if I’d say “don’t go see this.” (Me personally, anyway).

    Brett McCracken, for instance, had a nice review of it, calling it a good “cautionary tale.” And I would agree with that sentiment, while maintaining my criticism of the film.

    Here is McCracken’s review for Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/movies/reviews/2011/contagion.html?start=1

  • Nick

    On the other hand:

    David Denby (New Yorker) http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2011/09/19/110919crci_cinema_denby#ixzz1YQGd1UPF

    Jeffrey Overstreet (Filmwell) http://theotherjournal.com/filmwell/2011/09/10/contagion-soderbergh-2011/

    and Steven Greydanus: “It is a fact of human nature, and of American culture in particular, that in times of crisis and illness, people find religion. There should have been sickbed bedside religious paraphernalia: crosses and crucifixes, holy medals pinned to pillows, holy cards and the like. We should have seen people filing into church prayer vigils and healing services, priests administering anointing of the sick, and the like. (Yes, some people would have been deterred from going to church for fear of contagion, but lots of people wouldn’t, too.)

    If you’re going to have vandalism and riots as part of the total picture — and rightly so — this is another part of the total picture that shouldn’t have been neglected.”

    …all seem to be pointing to essentially the same thing.


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