It takes just two words superimposed over Gwyneth Paltrow’s sickly face to establish the mood of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s clinically staged, chillingly plausible film about a devastating pandemic. Those words: “Day 2.” Whatever has happened to make Paltrow look so ill is already underway, and for most of the film, characters play a game of catch-up, always one step behind a disease that spreads via simple contact, takes hold quickly, and leaves little but bodies and unanswered questions in its wake.
Set in multiple locations across the globe—and with a sprawling cast to match—Contagion glides back and forth along the unseen connections uniting the modern world. Soderbergh places a queasy emphasis on the way the things that make the world we live in smaller make us that much more vulnerable. One day, Paltrow sits at a bar eating peanuts and paying with her credit card. The next, she’s going into seizures as the consequences of those mundane, germ-spreading actions fan out behind her. In a cast that includes everyone from Marion Cotillard to Jude Law to Bryan Cranston, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne play a few of those dedicated to figuring out how to stop a disease that has math and momentum on its side, to say nothing of misinformation and emotion. The film’s title has multiple meanings, referring both to the way the virus spreads and the way talk about the virus spreads, along with a mounting sense of panic that also gets passed from person to person.
Soderbergh brings a cold-blooded approach to Contagion, and the chill generally serves the material well. The film’s strongest moments belong to Matt Damon, who, as Paltrow’s husband, is left to take care of their daughter (first-time actress Anna Jacoby-Heron, in a terrific debut) amid a disease-ridden, terror-stricken Minnesota suburb. In one memorable scene, a trip to the grocery store provides an accidental tour of an unraveling civilization. Not all of the subplots prove so compelling, however. Some take melodramatic turns at odds with the overall tone. The film’s lurching momentum disrupts others. But Soderbergh creates an unnerving mosaic from the smaller pieces, a vision of a world that’s simultaneously tightly knit, delicately balanced, and prone to breakdown, whether due to disease, bad ideas, or unenlightened self-interest. And sometimes those breakdowns don’t become apparent until day two, or even further down the line.