The hand-wringing and hand-washing of Contagion

Contagion is a well-wrought cautionary tale.

The film’s overture is strange with little dialog and few real characters. Conversations are had, but mostly they are covered over with music, and everyone we meet in the first five minutes are dead by the end of the second five minutes. This gentle flow of death mixed with noiseless action sets the tone for the remainder of the film.

The story is the now-classic tale of outbreak. A disease of unknown origin is ravaging the population of the world, and the struggle to overcome the epidemic takes place in a cluster of different stories in various places. 

The deaths come early and often in Contagion, they are gritty and real, showing faces which the film is not afraid to let us know are ugly and agonized.

Gwyneth Paltrow is given the paradigm death scene. Really, it’s the only thing she’s here for, and it does well to illustrate how this disease kills.

After that, we don’t need to see it anymore, and mercifully, the film does not show us it again in much detail, but we know that it is happening, we never forget Paltrow’s performance, and we know it is happening millions of times. The film does not over-dramatist the deaths, but nor does it trivialize them. It only shows the effects on those left behind.

The narrative is strange. There are characters, but no real protagonist. There is a conflict, surely. The world must overcome this disease, and learn to cope with a society in turmoil, but there is no one person who must resolve this conflict for us all.

Instead a group of people, some connected, some not, some in the film for its entirety, and some only for a few minutes, who must each overcome their own challenges, and each success or failure is part of the greater conflict of mankind. The scale that this style of conflict delivers is masterful, as it allows the audience to truly feel the scope of the disease, and the importance of every piece falling into the right place before the challenges can be overcome.

There is a surprisingly great amount of scientific information, and dry detail. Many scenes consist of musicless conversations in labs and boardrooms and newsrooms, even the few scenes of looting seem distant and dry, as the chosen camera angles are subjective and unbiased. The temptation is to use a lot of strange angles, and close action to really exemplify the violence of such scenes, but here instead we see the few of someone observing from a distance, silently. That’s not to say the scenes are sanitized.  If anything, they are more real, more visceral for all that they don’t try to play up the action.

Overall, the film tells the entire story of the epidemic from beginning to end in a way which feels real, which they accomplish through a combination of interesting plot composition and excellent acting, rather than through the usual tricks which are intended to create a sense of grit. More than anything else though, the film made me want to wash my hands.

Contagion, which stars Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Kate Winslet, is in theaters this weekend.