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Steven Soderbergh’s style shines with grittiness, A-listers

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, September 16, 2011 8:13 am

We’re moving into the fall movie season this week with a look at Steven Soderbergh’s disease pot-boiler “Contagion,” with a review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s hotly anticipated crime thriller “Drive” coming next time. After that we’ll hit a bit of a lull with (tentatively scheduled) reviews of the lighthearted inside-baseball flick “Moneyball” and the cancer dramedy “50/50,” but I’m confident that things will pick up again soon. And, as I said before, be on the lookout for periodic horror-themed DVD picks as we approach Halloween.

Steven Soderbergh, even when he’s off his game, never fails to fascinate as a director. In 1989 he brought indie filmmaking into the mainstream with the trail-blazing Cannes winner “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and in the decades since his indie roots have re-emerged with such eyebrow-raising works as “Bubble” (an incredible, slow-burn character piece comprised entirely of non-professional actors), “The Girlfriend Experience” (starring real-life adult film actress Sasha Grey) and “Che” (the four-hour Che Guevara biopic that nobody saw but everybody professes to “admire”).

But at the same time he has fashioned himself into an efficient studio workhorse capable of regularly turning out lean, effective genre pieces such as “Contagion.” A fast-paced procedural documenting the likely effects of a new worldwide epidemic, the film has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated Soderbergh production: a gritty feel and urgent tone; plenty of jump-cuts and carefully edited montages; a sprawling cast of A-list actors in modest supporting roles, etc. But also present is the odd and unsettling remoteness that Soderbergh typically displays when he’s in studio mode. Everything is so precisely staged, each camera angle and edit so obviously and meticulously tweaked, that Soderbergh’s true filmmaking voice often seems in danger of disappearing into an abyss of overly polished, studio-sanctioned “technique.”

“Contagion” opens on Day 2 of a worldwide bird-flu epidemic. Patient Zero, an American woman (played by Gwyneth Paltrow in a glorified cameo), contracts the disease in the Chinese city of Macau while on a business trip, and proceeds to infect her young son upon her return home. The husband (Matt Damon) watches helplessly as his family succumbs to an unexplained disease, but finds that he is immune to its effects. As the days drag on the illness expands across the globe at an exponential rate, and the story broadens its scope to include an array of characters on the front lines in the fight against a bio-apocalypse: a CDC official (Laurence Fishburne) torn between a sense of duty to public safety and an instinct for self-preservation; a dedicated researcher (Kate Winslet) who sets aside personal safety in her quest to discover the source of the illness; a conspiracy-theorist blogger (Jude Law) who preaches distrust of the government but may have his own selfish motivations for his “fight the man” rhetoric.

The film’s first act, which introduces these characters and charts the spread of the contagion, is remarkable. Tight, compact and always on-point, this section of the film is classic Soderbergh. The characterizations are stunted, but that’s because the director intentionally sacrifices character development in favor of a stronger focus on the anatomy of the epidemic. This is pure globe-trotting procedural, far more interested in the disease itself than the people fighting it. For the film’s first hour, Soderbergh maintains the momentum and draws the viewer in, setting the stage, presumably, for a riveting conclusion that sees our heroes scrambling to fight back against a disease that is “figuring us out faster than we can figure it out.”

But that satisfying, unifying conclusion never comes. Instead, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns make the unwise decision to shift focus during the story’s last third, which takes place during the final days of the initial crisis and then jumps forward several months to showcase the aftermath and society’s attempts to return to normalcy. It’s a sound approach, in theory, until you take into account the fact that Soderbergh put character development on the back-burner for so long that, by the time it becomes necessary to actually care about these specific characters and what becomes of them, the viewer is simply past the point of caring. This is a maddening instance of the director trying to have his cake and eat it, too.

There are other issues as well, mainly relating to the director’s over-reliance on stylistics and camera tricks that eventually culminates in a bizarrely edited, completely unnecessary and out-of-the-blue closing sequence that takes us back to Day 1 and reveals in detail the genesis of the epidemic. It is missteps like this that prevent “Contagion” from becoming the genre-defining piece it was clearly intended to be. But despite it numerous flaws, I must concede that the film is arresting for most of it running length, and achieves a level of realism not typically seen with this brand of film.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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