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The Revue: Eli Drinkwitz crafts a frightening and strangely entertaining debut

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After a lot of anticipation for Eli Drinkwitz’s big studio debut, the final product was as expected: predictably scary and weirdly hopeful.

Contagion

Directed By: Eli Drinkwitz

Starring: Shawn Robinson, Damon Hazelton, Larry Rountree III, Tyler Badie, Nick Bolton, An Actual Pandemic!

Synopsis: Facing a global pandemic, a host of heroes must battle their own demons and a veritable Crimson Tide of antagonists to survive.

Rating:

Sometimes, you know when a movie is going to go wrong. Not bad necessarily. Just... you know, wrong.

Contagion is such a movie. Born out of a troubled offseason, in which much football production was cancelled due to the actual pandemic (more on that later!), Eli Drinkwitz’s first feature effort at Mizzou Studios is just as frightening as we thought it might be. And yet, there’s something strangely entertaining — and maybe even hopeful? — about it.

Following a few years of disappointing and inconsistent efforts, Mizzou Studios decided to part ways with long-known director Barry Odom and brought along young hot-shot director, Eli Drinkwitz. Drink, known for his production work on 2010’s award-winning Magnolia (Avenue) and indie debut Guess Who’s Coming to (and Quickly Leaving) Appalachian State, spent the past few months wowing longtime fans with captivating trailers and casting hints about promising, long-awaited talents.

Still, there was always some doubt about the first effort, especially after the announcement that production would continue following the casting of an Actual Pandemic! It was a risky move by everyone at Mizzou Studios — and their producing partners at the Southeastern Conference — and one that may not pay off in the long run. But the decision led to some genuinely terrifying stakes!

And it’s not as if Drink’s debut needed them. The story pits a ragtag band of Mizzou Tigers against themselves and fearsome antagonists in the Alabama Crimson Tide as they seek to survive a deadly plague rampaging through the world. Inexperience and belligerently inept governance make things all the worse before the heroes even have a chance to prove themselves on screen.

The final results show it, too. While top-billed Shawn Robinson does deliver on some of the charisma and talent anticipating fans were teased with, there was clearly a bit of rust. After all, he hasn’t helmed a feature in several years. The final performance was somewhat nervous and twitchy, in between stretches where he carried the story. It helped that familiar faces like Larry Rountree, Tyler Badie and Nick Bolton all turned in solid performances — you could largely ignore, or at least forgive, Robinson’s errors if you knew where else to look.

But the story was written long before the actors hit the stage and Eli Drinkwitz put on his directing headgear (nice visor, it looks familiar.) In a cruel twist of fate, the Southeastern Conference insisted that Drinkwitz’s debut feature Nick Saban and Alabama playing villain — well, in a sense, there is an Actual Pandemic also starring here! — to the Tigers’ heroes. It’s a bold move, considering no cast with Alabama ever turns out well. But maybe that’s what the producers were going for — give the stars of Alabama a chance to shine while Drinkwitz polished up his new players.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the morbid entertainment value of Contagion. You know going in that almost everyone you love is either going to die or be hit so hard that their hat flies 20 yards through the air. And yet, you can’t look away. Maybe it’s the macabre knowledge that some day we will all grow old and die that forces us to watch a slaughtering with glee.

Alabama v Missouri
I’m used to actors selling out and putting their bodies on the line for their roles, but doesn’t Shawn Robinson think this is a little much?
Photo by Kent Gidley/Collegiate Images/ Getty Images

Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something more to Drinkwitz and his cast of characters that we’re not seeing reflected in the final cut. Maybe there’s something just beneath the surface that hasn’t had the proper opportunity to germinate quite yet. Perhaps these performances will pay forward to better, more successful efforts down the road. One can’t help but notice the promise of Robinson and other newcomers (that Damon Hazelton really pops on screen, doesn’t he?) and wonder how they could mesh with our favorite regulars. Throw in a good comeback story (Trajan Jeffcoat turns in a solid performance in his first role in over a year), and you’ve got the ingredients to a winning film.

It might not have turned out this time. It didn’t, and I was honestly quite scared for everyone involved at points. But there seems to be hope that Drinkwitz is figuring things out, and could be churning out hit after hit in no time.