Contagion and Warrior

Battle scenes



In his jittery new movie Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh takes the unusual step, for a big Hollywood production, of killing off Gwyneth Paltrow very near the beginning of the story. Paltrow's character turns out to be the key element in the narrative, however, and so she returns in many flashbacks—not always looking her best, especially with the drawn skin, cracked lips, and foamy discharge we see at the outset—but easily earning her above-the-title credit.

This is a deadly-viral-outbreak movie, a challenging genre in that a virus can't be seen—a fundamental problem in a visual medium—and that the story must inevitably be infused with some amount of medical jargon. The only means of building suspense is to observe the rogue pathogen's effects on the central characters, and to wonder who among them will die.

Soderbergh handles these difficulties with elegant concision. The medical nattering is kept to a minimum; and the characters, as laid out in Scott Z. Burns' tight script, are developed as full and distinctively flawed human beings. We care about these people as they go down, and we're taken by surprise when it's some of the main ones who do.

Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, a corporate executive who has just concluded a business trip to Hong Kong. As the story gets underway, she is returning home to Minneapolis by way of Chicago (a significant layover, as it turns out). Beth has developed a persistent cough, and assumes she may be coming down with the flu. Back at the house she shares with her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and their two kids, her condition quickly deteriorates: She suffers a seizure and is taken to the hospital, where she dies. Here, Damon has one of his most moving scenes. A doctor informs Mitch that his wife is dead, but the stunned husband can't process the information. He wants to see Beth; where is she? With minimal means, Damon demonstrates the visceral resistance of a man suddenly confronted with an event too cruel to be credited.

The disease spreads exponentially—through people coughing into their hands, passing glasses and casino chips, punching in numbers on cash machines, gripping door handles. At one point, we're told that the average person touches his or her face at least 2000 times a day. Sitting in a heavily trafficked movie theater, any viewer might find this information especially discomforting.

As the disease mutates worldwide—through "Day 7," "Day 18," and so forth—a desperate epidemiological investigation gathers speed. At the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Deputy Director Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) dispatches one of his top researchers, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minneapolis to observe the workings of the virus firsthand, while another staffer, Dr. Ally Hextal (Jennifer Ehle), works tirelessly in a super-sterile lab to develop a vaccine. In Geneva, Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a doctor with the World Health Organization, boards a plane to Hong Kong to attempt to trace the deadly microbe's origin. And in San Francisco, an independent researcher named Sussman (Elliott Gould), striving to find a way to cultivate the virus for examination, is being harassed by an Internet oracle named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who is stirring up his millions of online followers with charges that the government has already discovered a cure for the disease—and is secretly manufacturing a vaccine with which it will first inoculate its own bureaucrats and political insiders. (This is, shall we say, hardly implausible.)

The movie is most powerful in depicting the swift breakdown of civil society. Police and firefighting forces are quickly overwhelmed, looters empty supermarkets of canned goods, funeral homes refuse to accept infected bodies for burial (mass graves have to be dug), and neighbors turn against each other in fear and suspicion. The rampaging paranoia becomes its own kind of disease.

Soderbergh, who as usual shot the movie himself, is vitally assisted by two longtime collaborators: editor Stephen Mirrione, who helped pare away almost all narrative fat (with the possible exception of the scenes featuring Gould, whose character feels vestigial); and composer Cliff Martinez, whose discreetly percussive score keeps even the unavoidable walk-and-talk interludes compelling. In the end the darkness lifts, of course—otherwise, theoretically, who would be left to watch this movie? But a masterfully edited final montage suggests that very worrisome shadows remain.


Warrior seems a likely candidate for induction into the pantheon of great boxing movies. It's even more ferocious than many such pictures in that it focuses not on standard sluggery, but on the bloody caged combat of mixed martial arts, with leg swipes, head kicks, and resounding body slams packed in among the savage pinned-down beatings. The story—although you can see its resolution coming from a few miles away—has some unique twists. And the three lead performances—by Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy, and Joel Edgerton—are, in an unavoidable word, terrific.

Nolte plays Paddy Conlon, a veteran MMA trainer who taught everything he knows to his two sons, Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Edgerton). But Paddy was a brutal drunkard back in the day, and he drove away his wife, who took Tommy with her, leaving Brendan to be raised, unhappily, by his father. Years later, we find that Paddy has put booze behind him, but is now estranged from Brendan, who refuses to let him see the two children his son has with his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison). As for Tommy, he disappeared long ago.

Brendan is a popular high school science teacher. But financial reverses have put him in danger of losing his family's home. Desperate for income, he decides to return to fighting in shabby local matches around the Pittsburgh area. Then he contacts a longtime friend, a gym owner and trainer named Frank (Frank Grillo). Frank feels that Brendan is too old and soft for the fight game, but agrees to start training him for a big MMA tournament soon to be staged in Atlantic City, where the top attraction will be the current world champ, a formidable Russian called Koba (Kurt Angle), who resembles a very tall, heavily muscled refrigerator.

Then Tommy reappears, from who knows where. Dark and angry, he's now a completely mysterious figure. Tommy, too, has returned to fighting, and is also determined to take part in the Atlantic City tournament. Although he despises his father, he nevertheless recruits him to be his trainer—as long as they speak of nothing but the sport, and never socialize. Paddy sorrowfully consents.

I think you can see where this is heading. But while director Gavin O'Connor whips up a high level of ring action—all of it rousingly choreographed and shot close-in for maximum impact—he also maintains an intense focus on the long-buried emotional torment with which Paddy and his two sons are barely able to cope. There's a heartbreaking scene in which Paddy attempts to penetrate Brendan's bitterness from the shadows outside his son's home; and a nighttime confrontation between Brendan and Tommy on an Atlantic City beach that confirms Hardy—the "forger" in Inception—as one of the most gifted young actors in movies right now.    

But Nick Nolte's performance in this film is its central revelation. Now 70 years old, Nolte gathers together every sad detail of a man who has wasted most of his life on drink, and driven away everyone who ever might have loved him and lightened the burdens of an isolated old age. Over the course of a 40-year career, this actor has often been excellent; and in recent years he has been nominated twice for Academy Awards (for Affliction and The Prince of Tides). There may finally be a win in his future, because in playing a weary man worn down by all the wrong turns his life has taken, he has probably never been better.  

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  1. Knowing a bit about biotechnology, I find it really difficult not to tune out during thrillers about contagious diseases.

    1. Yeah despite all the scientific terminology they seem to be about as plausible as alien invasion movies or zombie movies. The virus is always something “never seen before.” What’s usually left out is the reason why things like that have “never been seen before” is that they don’t generally exist or work that way in nature.

    2. Feel the same way about movies (and TV) that have hacking in them. Invariably it is moronic. I think the last movie that showed a reasonable facsimile of war dialing and brute force hacking was Wargames.

      Also, lockpicking. Most of the time they don’t even use a torque wrench. So stupid. However, lockpicking has been getting better. And over the last 10 years, gun handling has gotten so much better on TV; I mean, amazingly better.

      1. You must have loved Untraceable then. I know it provided some LOLs for me. 🙂…,2329/

        1. Haven’t seen it, but I liked that review. The points about stuff like The Net were spot on.

          True abominations in terms of computer hacking are Hackers, any Michael Bay movie involving computers, and of course, the ultimate: Independence Day. They hacked an alien starship’s computer! With a Mac!

          1. First, The Stand fucking rocked. One of the Kings best books.

            Second, would it really be that hard for some shit like this to happen? We’ve had deadly flu outbreaks etc before where millions have died.

              1. The Spanish flu from 1918 to 1919.

  2. So nolte’s playing himself then.

  3. A virus that can’t be seen should pose no problem to you libertoids. You always manage to see what you want.

  4. Man, Kurt, why didn’t you warn that you were going to spoil who dies in the movie. You’re on my never read again list now.

  5. No.

  6. Yes.

  7. “some very unique twists”

  8. Saw at a screening this last weekend. Loder was either high or getting a blow job during this movie (unlikely, because close-ups of Paltrow ’emoting’ shrivel the testicles). I think the general public wants to see more early Paltrow death scenes, but it takes a special kind of prick to keep bringing her back and ruining it.

    This movie is 80% people talking ‘split screen’ on cell phones to each other. I wish they had just made this an ad for a cell provider, because obviously they offer superior call service, be nice to know which brand to go with. But for a movie its a total cop out and cheesy way to waste screen time.

    It’s another typical Soderbergh movie, a worn out plot, a boring over-exposed & well past their prime ‘A’ list cast, and a cheap TV quality production. Save your money, in fact, just hold $20 up to the light and ask ‘I wonder how many germs are on this’ and you’ve seen the movie.

    1. As soon as I saw Soderbergh’s name on it I thought this would be the case. The guy hasn’t made a unique or fresh movie since Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Half his movies are either remakes of other movies, from a book, or a sequel to one of his movies. I half expected this one to be from a book or a remake of a foreign film.

    2. “Save your money, in fact, just hold $20 up to the light and ask ‘I wonder how many germs are on this’ and you’ve seen the movie.”


  9. Thanks for the spoiler alert!

  10. You had me at “killing off Gwyneth Paltrow very near the beginning of the story”

    1. It was the best part of Se7en, though unfortunately Fincher waited until the end.

      1. “What’s in the box?? Tell me what’s in the box!!!”

        Her character was pretty superfluous except for that awesome ending.

  11. I would never have expected Warrior to be any good. I might have to check it out.

  12. Hey Kurt? You’re an asshole. Not only do you put up spoilers, you put them in the excerpt on rotten tomatoes.

    You win the award for 2011’s “Most Retarded Reviewer”. Congrats.

    1. You didn’t know it was about MMA?

  13. It wasn’t a spoiler people, we know Damon’s wife dies from the trailer where we see him freak out at the hospital.

  14. The only means of building suspense is to observe the rogue pathogen’s effects on the central characters, and to wonder who among them will die.

    Apparently Kurt Loder never saw Panic in the Streets or The Killer That Stalked New York, both from all the way back in 1950. They both have only one main character getting the contagious disease, and since that character is a criminal in both cases, you know they’re going to die. And yet the movies are both excellent, especially The Killer That Stalked New York, which was really just a little B-movie.

  15. Please tell me that the inane Zinn-Muddist dope Matt Damon dies early. Paltrow the slut is not enough.

  16. Tom Hardy is amazing in Bronson. I didn’t think the movie really worked, but it was through no fault of his. Indelible.

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