Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hidden Inside the Host — Contagion

Contagion resembles the virus that is its subject: if there is a misstep anywhere, it is hard to identify. From the opening scene's unnerving shots of all the things we touch and thereby communicate disease, the visual medium is employed to great effect in service of the plot and message, and this deft and sure handling continues right through to the end. 

DEPTH: 3.5

OVERALL: Recommended 

Often when films are as star-studded as this one, everyone seems like they are only trying to out-act each other (a good offender, for example, is the Jack Nicholson film The Departed). Not so in this case. Kate Winslet is plain and even unattractive in many an unsmiling scene, yet still showing remarkable grace in dealing with ungrateful and uncooperative colleagues. 

Matt Damon continues to demonstrate his pliability as a stammering average guy who feels three steps behind an incomprehensible series of events. His display of emotion, when it finally comes, is thus absolutely convincing. 

Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow contribute much as well, and maybe the most carefully portrayed of all is Lawrence Fishburne's character Ellis Cheever, at the helm of the Center For Disease Control (CDC). 

Deserving of special mention is Jennifer Ehle, who resembles a young Meryl Streep and shows as much finesse, as well as John Hawkes, who completes the circle of understatedness as an unassuming janitor.

The plot is tightly woven and maintains a good balance between global and local perspective. The difficulty is that it is like seeing a well-known play: you already know the plot before you start. Everyone gets sick, and there must be a difficult ordeal. 

One very effective device for keeping tension and surprise within this otherwise obvious and transparent plot structure was to open with "Day 2," keeping the initial contraction part of the investigative diagnostic mystery, hidden until the very end.

Contagion never succumbs to the temptation to portray overly gruesome or gratuitously sentimental scenes. Instead we are brought to a genuine grief over the loss of life and a real fear at the possibility of an outbreak such as this. A remarkable surprise in the film comes after the discovery of a vaccine, as nightmarish scenarios continue to play out in cities unable to cope with basic law enforcement, food distribution.

"How's your Dad?" ":(" Consistent with the realist goals of the film, the texting locates the plot in real time. Simultaneously it develops the agenda of freelance journalist and blogger Alan Krumweide (Jude Law). His message is that the uncontrolled internet is more help to people in a time of crisis than the tightly controlled, traditional and bureaucratic such as the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO). The CDC and WHO are portrayed to regard the internet with the vague suspicion an outdated generation often has for technology and change. The film persuasively argues that the ways our institutions are currently set up to handle a major global disease outbreak are inadequate.

Nevertheless, the people within those institutions are capable of moral heroism. Two touching scenes near the end highlight the selfless sacrifice of the caregiving and medical professions we rely on for help when we are sick. These scenes give the film a human touch and round out the detached clinical side of disease control.

If there is anything that falls a little flat it is the regulatory government-CIA character who interrogates Jude Law, and a perhaps slightly overwrought kidnapping plot line in Macao (maybe a little too close to "24"). 

However, like the virus, these defects are fairly well hidden inside the host of an otherwise great film.