Contagion may draw audiences in with the promise of rampant lethal disease and a star studded or, dare I say (shamelessly), infected ensemble cast, but what you instead get is an eerily all-too-possible account of a SARS, H1N1, chicken flu, swine flu, rhino flu, or whatever this year's imminent viral threat may be, gone very, very wrong.
Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo as American patient zero Beth Emhoff who contracts the rapidly terminal bug on a business trip to Hong Kong. On her way back to hometown Minneapolis, unfortunately for her fellow adulterer/lover and the entire city of Chicago, she has a layover that later dooms the midwest to a Christmas time quarantine. Her hubby, Mitch (Matt Damon), is conveniently immune to the virus, but not to the infectious fear that sweeps the rest of the world, especially as he attempts to protect his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron).
Other ensemble players include Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, and Elliot Gould, who play the world's healers, each, in some way, using their knowledge of medicine and research to procure a vaccine and help reverse the pandemic. Of particular note is Jennifer Ehle's (BBC's Pride and Prejudice) role as researcher Dr. Ally Hextall. Her performance balances the uneasy line between professional duty and personal responsibility as her critical understanding of the disease forces her to act instinctively and rationally, a conflict that other characters have difficulty struggling with as their knowledge and power corrupt their moral compass.
While there's no traditional villain (you can't really count slimeball conspirator and overgrown blogger Alan Krumwiede, played by a gracelessly aging Jude Law), the disease and in many ways society itself claims a large fraction of the title. Perhaps that is what is so terrifying about the film: the notion that an unnameable force can tear through and infect distrust and distance in a world that so readily embraces social networking and global connection. It's unsettling and ironic to say the least, and though things aren't exactly tightly woven by the end of the film, we leave at least a little relieved that trust is perhaps the best remedy of all.