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.