When you get home, I guarantee you’ll wash your hands
by Jack Kentala
Steven Soderbergh: Easily one of the ten best American directors alive; who has directed over a dozen films (most of them very, very good); whose hyper-prolific output began a mere twenty years ago, with the Palme d’Or-winning Sex, Lies, and Videotape, when the son-of-a-bitch was only 26; who turned the modern noir The Limey into every film school’s selection for the day they talk about non-linear editing; who churned out three better-than-necessary Ocean’s films that made gobs of money so he could finance little-seen cheapo masterpieces like The Girlfriend Experience and the epic Che; who serves as cinematographer (as Peter Andrews, per guild rules) for most of his films, which seems almost impossible; who redefined the use of color in film in his 2000 Best Director-winning Traffic (competing against himself with Erin Brokovich, splitting his own vote and winning) and, by extension, probably spurring the rise of hyper-saturated films through a digital intermediate instead of negative manipulation; who has one film in post, one shooting, and two in pre-production; who, at the tender age of 48, has made repeated, probably-serious claims that he plans to retire to become a painter, simply to express himself in another visual art form–
–has just unleashed Contagion (2011), one of the best thrillers in a very, very long time.
Here’s hoping the guy just might change his mind and go Altman-style, directing until, shit, he dies.
So here we have Contagion. You’ve seen the previews. (I didn’t; I just heard who directed it.) You get the gist. Virus, pandemic, chaos. 1, 2, 3, right?
The greatest praise I can give to Contagion is that not a single scene (save, maybe, a bit of a tacked-on pre-denouement [let's just call it Prom Night] that reeks of test-audience input) drifts along on a lazy, panicked emotion; that Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (their second collab since the tonally-opposite The Informant!) have enough faith in the unashamed bleakness of the story to have absolutely zero comic relief (and, hell, even Traffic had some buddy-cop hijinks with Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman); and manages to cram what could’ve easily been an entire television series into a sub-two-hour film.
And whereas a director like Danny Boyle’s style is that he has no style, Soderbergh is the ultimate chameleon, in which he tailors each film’s aesthetic to exactly what it needs. Here he’s smart enough to know that Contagion is all story, and he doesn’t fluff it up with flashy editing or overblown cinematography. He has the rare gift, like Terrence Malick, to turn major stars into ordinary people, though it may just be as easy as not putting any makeup on Kate Winslet. Maybe chalk it up to Soderbergh’s lighting (or his gaffer’s, really), but this is as far removed from any CSI bullshit as you can get.
I majored in cinematography in college, so I like to imagine that I know a thing or two about it; namely, who has the chops to helm a Big Movie and who doesn’t. While Soderbergh might not be able to earn an ASC invite, he’s one of the finest cinematographers around. While he knew he could get away with murder (uncorrected bulbs, weird angles, odd, unmotivated camera movements) in the Ocean’s trilogy given their built-in profitability, his recent Che epic showed that, armed with the freakishly-awesome Red camera, he can do anything, and usually he’s the one doing it as operator. (Though on the Criterion commentary for Traffic, Soderbergh professed that he simply can’t work a gear-head tripod. Maybe in the eleven years since he’s learned how.) Though Che worked beautifully as a two-parter, each with a well-defined cinematographic style, Contagion might give it a money-run for his best lens work.
I can’t decide, though, that what I initially perceived as Contagion’s greatest weakest might actually be its strength. There’s not much substance here. Characters are given only basic motivation (protecting their family, trying to cure the world, et cetera et cetera) to soldier on with their increasingly-difficult lives and survival. We know the stakes are high just by looking at the world maps that pop up every ten minutes that show the world plunging into illness. The film expertly balances the trials of Matt Damon’s role as a Minneapolis dad keeping his daughter healthy and the ensemble of WHO and CDC employees trying to prevent the world from going out with a whimper-bang. Simply put, for this type of story – the Ticking Time Bomb, a rugged screenplay model among the pantheon of plot templates – we don’t need much else.
And here comes the part where I spiral back down to earth, find myself hitting this keyboard with less and less frequency, and trying to give my usual sort of non-conclusion. I hope you’re at least content that I’ve never slapped on a number or a letter grade or some bullshit to distill a movie into something to glance at to decide if you’ll check out Contagion tonight or stay in and watch Mad Men on Netflix Instant Watch. No, Contagion probably won’t be the best film of the year. No, it probably won’t make a Scrooge McDuck-sized vault of money akin to Ocean’s worldwide take. (Though with the inexpensive Red camera and Soderbergh’s knack for working hella fast and on the cheap, I doubt that there’s really much money to lose.) And yes, you’ll probably still hate Gwyneth Paltrow after seeing it. But Contagion is one of Soderbergh’s best films, and that’s no small praise. It also happens to give a good thrill-scare for something more terrifying than any terrorist can dream up or execute.
(Footnote: I was going to mention how I didn’t hear anything at all on the news or from friends that Soderbergh was shooting a film set largely in Minneapolis and, by extension, that they’d at least film exteriors here. IMDb doesn’t have MPLS listed as a shooting location, and if that’s true, production design Howard Cummings did his research to make the snow look like snow and not those damn soap flakes they use for everything else. And, thank god, there’s not a single hint of the not-real-at-all Minnesota accent as seen in Fargo. Yeah, some people have a trace of that accent, but dammit, don’t play it for comedy.)
(Footnote 2: These fine ears swear they picked up some recycled dissonant piano from The Limey for Cliff Marinez’s score here. And did I mention that Contagion has a great score?)