Contagion is the latest film from the ever diverse Steven Soderbergh, a director who can go from mainstream fair like the entertaining Ocean’s series to smaller stuff like The Girlfriend Experience, and Bubble. With Contagion he seems to have mixed those two sensibilities, delivering a compelling, thought-provoking and often flat-out frightening film about a worldwide pandemic that seems all too real.
Starting off with one or two people, an unknown, highly contagious virus begins to infect people. Its impact grows, multiplying its effect to four, then six, then twelve, and eventually to a scale where it can no longer be ignored by the rest of the world. We follow a several people in various countries as the virus starts to spread even more while scientists try frantically to find a cure. Of course, once news of the virus travels then, as a say, the virus is the least of their worries – “nothing spreads like fear,” as the tagline states.
It’s a pretty basic set up but Soderbergh is such a talented, meticulous filmmaker that he rings every possible thing out of it. Spanning all sorts of different countries we get the chance to see how the virus is affecting not just one or two groups of people in one location but a variety of different places across the globe.
The reason the film works so well is the fact that we can all relate to it. In one way or another we’ve all been sick in our lives and it explores the possibility of “What if it had been a hell of a lot worse? What if I hadn’t gotten better?” It also bluntly draws attention to the fact that we touch our face, taps, door handles, walls, mobile phones and, of course, each other (etc.) more than we might think, therefore making you more socially aware. I have to admit when walking out after seeing the film my awareness of those around me was heightened. It’s rare a mainstream film can have that sort of power beyond simply watching it.
For film buffs the draw will be director Steven Soderbergh himself (who is apparently planning to retire after his next few movies), who has been a critical success for more than two decades now with films like Traffic, Out of Sight, his two-part Che biopic and even the successful Ocean’s trilogy (to name but a few). However, for mainstream movie goers the cast is going to be the draw and what an impressive cast it is, with the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Platrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne appearing. But one of the greatest strengths of the movie is how it utilises that cast. It’s not in any way showy but plays it like an ensemble. It doesn’t go out of its way to dramatically introduce a particular star in a way that proclaims “Hey look! It’s Matt Damon!” but gives them as much or as little screen time as the story needs, a case of the actors serving the characters/story and not the other way around (as it should be).
With David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and now Soderbergh’s Contagion, it’s clear 2011 has been a year for worldwide apocalypse movies. While the other two perhaps paint a more elegant, maybe even beautiful view of that sort of story, Contagion plays it entirely straight and completely realistic. It’s not a movie without its problems – I think there are some cliche traps it falls into at times – but for the most part this is an enthralling, almost exhausting, experience that’s both strangely entertaining in the moment and has you pondering it afterwards. This is the level that Soderbergh is able to work at even now and I think, if he does retire, the film world will be a lesser place without him.
I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.
I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
THIS piercing, unique and peculiarly powerful film gives us an unsettlingly up-close-and-personal look at the gunshot heard around the world and more specifically the effect that had on one of the people closest to it. Framed via her interview with Life magazine’s Theodore H White (Billy Crudup), we see how Jackie Kennedy’s life was utterly shattered by the assassination of her husband President John F Kennedy. She tries to pick up the pieces with the help of her brother-in-law Bobby (a terrific Peter Sarsgaard) as they plan the all-important funeral.
There have been many films made about that most famous assassination on November 22, 1963 in Dallas – not least Oliver Stone’s seminal investigatory drama JFK – as well as about Mrs Kennedy herself, but this decisively unorthodox biopic does that rarest of things: it gives us a fresh perspective on a subject about which we thought we knew everything.
The lead role is a tall ask, especially if you need to capture the likeness and mannerisms of one of the most famous women of the 20th century, while never stepping over the mark into unintentional caricature. But Portman is more than up to the task by giving a complex, fascinating performance that conveys the utter shock thrust upon a woman of poise and grace.
It’s a near-perfect imitation – showcased in the recreation of the famous White House tour she gave in 1962 – but there is something more than that going on under the surface, a subtle specificity to the way she plays it that makes her feel like a real person as well as the larger-than-life icon.
Some of the film’s most compelling scenes are simply those which allow the camera to linger on close-ups of her face as she looks in the mirror to wipe her husband’s blood and brains off her face; standing in utter shock next to Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) on the plane as he’s sworn in as the new President while her husband lies dead; or walking aimlessly around the White House trying on dresses like a phantom suddenly rendered useless in her own life. She can do absolutely nothing about what’s happened to her except try and take it in her stride as best she can while the eyes the world waits to see what she does or says next. “Don’t think for one minute I’m going to let you publish that,” she tells White as he probes her with unforgiving interview questions a mere week after her husband’s death, so desperate to control what the public will think of her now.
She’s engulfed by a mesmeric, alluring and deeply unsettling tone captured by Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s directorial approach that is so at odds with what we’ve come to expect from a traditional biopic.
Then there’s the wonderfully strange score by Mica Levi which swaps orthodox biopic score swellings for sombre piano thuds and warped other-worldly sounds that carries over the peculiarity of her magnificent work on Under the Skin. The soundtrack perfectly conveys the simultaneous sense of shock and overwhelming grief that permeates the film as a whole.
Most movies come and go without making much of a lasting impact, providing entertainment for their runtime but not much more than that. Jackie is no such film. It’s a stunning combination of performance and mood that makes for a singularly powerful cinematic experience that isn’t easy to shake from the mind. 5/5
THE infamous story of 29-year-old TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck has gone on to spark not one but two films about her life and, more specifically, her suicide on live television in the summer of 1974.
Last year we had the part documentary, dramatized re-enactment Kate Plays Christine which saw actress Kate Lyn Sheil attempt to get inside the mindsight (and physical appearance) of a woman who would ultimately choose to shoot herself on the air.
This is a more straightforward but no less affecting film that focuses on Christine’s (Rebecca Hall) day-to-day time as a reporter in Sarasota, Florida. She does her best to tell stories she feels matter while becoming increasingly frustrated by the sensationalism that has crept into the business and her channel in particular as it struggles to compete in the ratings.
There are certain script issues which speaks to scriptwriter Craig Shilowhich’s first-time effort, not least a meandering quality to some of the subplots, particularly one involving Christine’s co-worker George (Michael C Hall) wanting to date her that feels unneeded in the larger scope of the picture.
But it’s significantly elevated by a kind of low-key intensity in the direction by Antonio Campos (Simon Killer, Afterschool), as well as Hall’s truly captivating and poignant central performance. Hall plays her with more than just a woman-on-the-edge conventionality, bringing pathos and complexity to a determined but deeply troubled human being.
The “if it bleeds – it leads” mantra that so informed the sensationalism-themed Nightcrawler (a strange companion piece to this film in many ways) and relayed to her team by her no-nonsense boss Michael (Tracy Letts) infuriated Christine more than anything, the inhumanity of it for the sake of viewership compounding her fragile state of depression and anxiety.
Christine’s notorious final words were: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living colour, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.” Would you look away? It’s an uncomfortable question that this disquieting film isn’t afraid to ask with stark, haunting clarity backed up with empathy and understanding. 4/5
SOME stories are so incredible that they simply must be true. Few other films this year are likely to exemplify that sentiment better than Lion. Based on his memoir A Long Way Home, the film tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, a five-year-old boy (played by adorable newcomer Sunny Pawar) living in extreme poverty with his hard-working mother and siblings.
One night he goes out to a train station with his older brother Guddu to scavenge for any work. But after accidentally falling asleep Saroo wakes up frightened and alone, inadvertently boarding a decommissioned train that carries him 1,600 kilometres away to bustling Calcutta where he struggles desperately to find his way back home. He is eventually found and subsequently adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a loving middle-class Australian couple who want to help give disadvantaged kids a better start in life.
25 years later Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is at university looking to start a career in hotel management and is generally living a good life. However, the memories of his past and his true origins haunt him. And so he sets himself the seemingly impossible task of finding where he came from, pushing away his caring family and girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) in the process.
Lion certainly doesn’t work because of its form, which sticks mainly to conventionality in an attempt to make it appeal to as wide and mainstream of an audience as possible. Nor is it particularly adept at exploring the various racial and privilege themes teased by its attention-grabbing real-life tale.
It’s a crowd-pleasing success because of the compelling performances, namely a never-better Patel, and empathy it has for the central character’s deeply personal and ambitious plight. How is he supposed to find home when he barely remembers it beyond a town name and the fleeting image of a water tank across from the station platform in which he awoke a quarter of a century ago? Director Garth Davis’ manages to make Saroo’s search feel cinematic in its own way – who knew someone scrolling through Google Earth could be so riveting?
It’s not exactly as Earth-shattering as perhaps its unbelievable true story suggests, and often feels hampered by its need to be a safe, dependable watch. But there’s much heart and sincerity to admire here and plenty of sweeping emotion in which to get swept up. 3/5
WHAT’S the proper way to act when someone close to you dies? Do you cry uncontrollably? Lock yourself away and not speak to anyone? Do you carry on as if nothing happened? That’s one of the central themes of Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly devastating drama.
When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly passes away from heart failure, reserved building janitor Lee (Casey Affleck) returns to his old town of Manchester, Massachusetts to break the news to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
While trying to take care of his brother’s funeral arrangements and financial affairs, he discovers that in his will he planned for Lee to become Patrick’s guardian, a responsibility for which he is entirely ill-equipped to handle.
On the surface, not much happens here plot-wise. But bubbling away underneath is a world of pain, hurt, uncertainty and aching loss that is exquisitely communicated on-screen by Lonergan’s pitch-perfect control of tone and the understated yet powerful performances that populate its narrative.
Rarely since TV’s Six Feet Under has a piece of drama captured the singular effect of loss on those that are left to pick up the pieces and how it affects everyone in their own unique ways. From the delayed moment it takes for the sorrow to truly hit home, to the awkward and funny small-talk that exists to alleviate tension.
This is particularly true of our central character, whose grief is compounded by the fact that he never got to say goodbye to his brother after arriving too late to the hospital.
Affleck brings a magnificent subtlety to him in one of his best performances to date. He projects an image of depleted devastation, rather than screaming outrage at the unfairness of death. His performance is made all the more powerful because there are no big Oscar-bait speeches but rather a discreet, introspective suffering.
Hedges avoids maudlin clichés of the grieving son to give us a believable, compelling portrait of an impressionable teenager suddenly rendered father-less. Michelle Williams creates a shattering impact with a limited but important role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi.
It’s a film about gradually and patiently peeling away the surface loss that runs so deep that it becomes unthinkable to even mention it beyond the logistics of what to do next. Its flashback structure may be familiar but is used in a powerful way to both punctuate present day goings-on and illuminate the characters’ pasts. Is one loss felt greater than another or do they merely combine together over time, creating fresh wounds that deny true healing?
This emotional tour de force explores this theme and much more in a way that seemingly doesn’t make a fuss but creeps up on you with a rare raw power.