IT’S unusual to watch an A-lister die from violent convulsions in the opening five minutes of a film, but director Steven Soderbergh promised ultra-realism and on the whole, Contagion does the job admirably. Set in the present, as the world is wracked by a killer virus, there are no exploding heads nor mad flesh-cravings. Just a cough, a cold, a seizure and a relatively quick death. The infected are everyday folk eating peanuts in airport lounges, touching train doors and shaking hands. Rather than be inspired to perform feats of heroism, a slightly podgy Matt Damon does what any sane person would do. He tries to leave, finds he can’t, locks himself in the house and stocks up on hand sanitiser.
Meanwhile, Soderbergh tracks the virus from within the U.S. Center for Disease Control. We follow everyone from Dr Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) attempting to allay the inevitable panic, to researchers desperately working on the vaccinations. They bicker and they interrupt each other; Scott Z. Burns’s script is very natural. Apart from the odd over-sentimental clanger, the script is pared down to the bone and free from awkward exposition. And together with the series of A-listers who keep popping up (Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon, then Marion Cotillard…), the action propels forward at the same breakneck speed as the virus itself.
It’s a comprehensive and genuinely tense thriller – a feat considering the size of the cast and the sheer speed at which the virus takes hold. Love interests and individual struggles are shown, but Soderbergh’s real intention is to present the whole picture in all its messy glory: nurses strike, a blogger (Jude Law) sparks worldwide panic and two weeks in, America runs out of body bags. Rioting? A media circus? Jude Law attempting an Australian accent? None of the issues seem alien and Contagion deals with it all head-on. Everything’s here and it’s all real. Or rather, it does a bloody good job of seeming real.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
SINCE Lionel Shriver’s hit novel in 2003, quite a few people have been talking about Kevin – the BBC especially. And after snapping up the rights, getting Lynne Ramsay on board as director, and bagging Tilda Swinton as Eva, the tortured mother, the Beeb can rest assured that the Kevin discussion is far from over. The story of a sociopathic boy as told through the letters of his agonised mother was always going to be tricky but, with an outstanding cast and stamped with her trademark bold visuals, Ramsay ensures this is not your average child-goes-psycho yarn. Firstly (and thankfully) there are no voiceovers. Secondly, the violence is kept to a minimum. Thirdly, the tension between Swinton and the son who both repulses and obsesses her – a charismatic, disturbed turn from Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin – is so convincing as to be near unwatchable. It’s a brilliant study of manipulation, fear, and how to cope when your child ends up committing mass murder at the school gym.
As it turns out, you can’t. Held responsible by others and herself, Eva numbly picks up the pieces and recalls the events prior to the massacre. Swinton proves to be a masterstroke of casting. As Kevin progresses from blank toddler to dead-eyed teen, she is helpless and desperate, eventually becoming as dead-eyed and blank as the son who destroyed her. Or did she destroy him? It’s unflinching stuff, with threatening undertones filtering into the most innocuous of scenes; even the act of eating a lychee or making a sandwich becomes painfully grotesque.
Yes, adapting Shriver’s novel was a big task, but the result is a deft and profound picture; a film that remains long after the final credits. It certainly makes you think twice about ever having children.