Tuesday, December 10, 2013

End of the world double header: Contagion and The Road

Contagion, 2011, d. Stephen Soderberg -- netflix
The Road, 2009, d. John Hillcoat -- netflix
(Countdown to the World's End, day 10)

The wife has a thing about end-of-the-world and post-apocalyptic scenarios... they freak her out something fierce, putting her head in a space of hopelessness and despair that just isn't fun for her.  It's kind of funny then that two of her favourite films this year were The World's End and This Is The End... a spoonful of sugar, I guess.

I, on the other hand, generally love seeing both the "how did it come to pass" and the "what happens after" type of stories.  That's why I watched these two features whilst my special lady was away one weekend. More often than not I like them to be steeped more in science fictional or fantastical elements, but that covers a lot of terrain.  Contagion, though, is about as down-to-Earth as they come, starting small with patient zero, and watching how a virus rapidly spreads across the globe, not caring who gets in its way no matter how big a celebrity they are.

Contagion is a brilliant antidote to the usual Hollywood methodology of making an outbreak kind of story.  It has dozens upon dozens of characters, from bloggers to health care workers, from teenagers to lab technicians, and on an international scale, giving not just the American perspective.  A robust use of television news really fills out the world of Contagion, one that's very nicely filled out already by the diversity of cast and locale.

Director Soderbergh really breaks down how a new virus can spread so easily in our global culture, and how difficult it is to contain.  Equally he shows how determined, how proactive, and how capable the scientists and the infrastructure of communicable diseases can be, particularly when it comes to extremely virulent outbreaks.  Though he doesn't belabor it too much (and I think he could have done even more to hit the point home) in everything there are going to be those looking to capitalize off the misery of others.  We catch a glimpse of that in one story thread, and hints of private pharma versus the public interest in another.  We also have moments where a state government weighs their options, looking at how they should balance quarantine with the economic hit.  I'm sure there's plenty more conversations that occur than what we see in the film, but Soderbergh tries to tackle as many realistic conversations as possible in the film's unbelievably brisk running time.

Though filled with great moments, the most potent aspect of the feature is the opening credits sequence underneath Cliff Martinez's intensely pulsating score which shows a montage of people coughing, and Soderbergh's framing making the viewer hyper-aware of how bugs spread, the surfaces people touch, the air we breathe, it actually gets close overwhelming.  There's the sense of wanting to hermetically seal ones' self off from the world, but as the film resolves itself, one deftly executed handshake kind of restores one's sense of normalcy, of the appropriateness of human contact.  It's a moment that had me saying bravo.

The film reminded me in tone of the Andromeda Strain, a much more claustrophobic and more direct movie, but parallel in intensity and fascination.  They're both very much in-depth procedurals on disease control, just this one's a lot less spec fic.  The world never does come to its end, thankfully in Contagion, but it does get pretty bleak at times, particularly when food rations start running low and the streets start becoming more aggressive, but it's got nothing on The Road.

The Road, I have to admit, proved even to bleak for me, and after a couple years of teasing my Viggo-adoring wife about her reticence to see it, I had to apologize.  It's a dreary, miserable, painful, uncomfortable, terrifying film.  It's both a credit and a damnation of director Hillcoat's craft that he was able to sustain such a narrative in what wasn't exactly a small film, and that he didn't betray it with any overt Hollywoodisms (although the moment where the kid tries to reaffirm with his dad that they'll always be good guys was quite heavy handed and obviously setting up their downfall).  At the same time, this incessant bleakness makes for a thoroughly unenjoyable, and eventually unwatchable movie.

Mortensen plays a Father on the road with his pre-teen son, where they've been for some time.  The apocalypse happened, but we're never clear on what it is, and the director and writer are never to keen on filling us in.  This is disappointing as one of my favourite elements of post-apocalyptic movies is the story of how it happened, or the seeding of clues to allow us to figure it out for ourselves.  The point here is what happened doesn't matter, now that there's some distance after the fact, certainly not for the characters at least.  The events of the end of the world are negligible compared to survival.

The road for these two is an endless gauntlet of challenges.  Finding food or replacement clothing, searching for shelter, avoiding cannibals and violent scavengers, and just staying alive.  They carry with them a gun, with few remaining bullets, perhaps just enough to end their own lives should the desperation be enough, and Mortensen takes the young Kodi Smit-Mcfee through the drill of shooting himself in the head a number of times, to the great discomfort of any parent watching.

There is one scene of respite in this film, a moment that allows the characters time to breathe, to smile, to clean up and to eat, but they're on a journey to the coast, where they hear of a respite from the dank grey world they've come to know.  It's an inevitable conclusion what happens in this film and it attempts, in its final minutes, to leave with the promise of hope, of salvation, of the strength of family that abandoned Viggo and his boy, but it's far too little and way too late to resuscitate this utterly depressing movie.

In pure honestly, I must confess to fast forwarding through most of the second hour of the picture, stopping for any scenes that had the characters engaging in any lengthy conversation, but the scene towards the end where Mortensen ultimately succumbs to his paranoia and fear, stealing everything Michael K Williams (a man simply as desperate as themselves) has, including every scrap of clothing... that scene decimates me every time I think of it.  It's a film that showcases the worst in humanity, as so many post-apocalyptic tales do, and it makes for pitiful entertainment.  It's exceptionally well done, and I absolutely hated it.

(Contagion: David's Take)