Sometimes a movie comes tumbling out of Hollywood that utterly defies explanation.
A Cure for Wellness will no doubt make your skin crawl, but it refuses to be pigeonholed as a simple horror film. This is a film that careens wildly between Shining-esque horror, Old World mystery and Korean-style melodrama, sometimes within a single scene. Gore Verbinski makes expert use of his cast, European backdrop, and hundreds of eels to tell a bizarre story about the desire to unplug from modernity and the dangers that come with it. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it is an endlessly fascinating one.
Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a young business executive whose company is currently under the gun of the SEC. His bosses send him to a sanitarium at the foot of the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO, Mr. Pembroke (Harry Groener). A car crash soon makes Lockhart a patient in the sanitarium, under the supervision of Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Volmer instructs Lockhart to drink plenty of water, which may or may not have mysterious restorative properties. As Lockhart sneaks around the premises, he slowly uncovers the facility’s disturbing history, which includes the presence of a girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), who Volmer says is a “special case”.
There is quite a lot to unpack here, which may be the understatement of the year. The story opens as we witness an office drone working on stocks and figures tirelessly into the night until it gives him a heart attack. His boss, seemingly aware of such pressures, has checked himself into Volmer’s clinic, where he is perfectly content being treated, worked over, and manipulated into becoming a Homerian lotus eater. The clinic’s patients, all wealthy or powerful in one way or another, all freely submit themselves to water therapy, deprivation tanks and other means of disconnecting them from society. We see all this through Lockhart, a young man still intimately aware of and wired into the modern world. There are shades of the 2008 financial crisis here, and early on it seems that Verbinski might be pinning the blame on older generations living with their heads in the proverbial sand.
But then the film takes the first of several hard left turns and begins filling in the clinic’s centuries-old backstory. This takes us on a tangent wholly removed from the social commentary mentioned above, as patients tell conflicting stories about the original owners of the compound, illicit love affairs, animosity from the village below, and other tales that may or may not all tie together near the end. Lockhart escapes the clinic long enough to get into a barfight with the locals, who still have no love for Volmer’s operation. Why? What are they hiding? What does any of this have to do with the town? Or global finance, for that matter?
As it happens, the film is full of red herrings.
It’s hard to tell how many of these are intentional misdirects and how many are simply narrative dead ends that somehow survived the editing process. A Cure for Wellness is a long, serpentine shaggy dog story whose conclusion can be guessed without too much trouble. (If you’re the type who likes to win at movies, you’ll figure everything out early and then constantly check your watch for the remaining ninety minutes.) This film is less concerned with shocking reveals and more with following through on the disgusting plans it lays out.
To that end, Verbinski does not shy away from disturbing imagery. No, he leans right the fuck into it. The car crash that kicks off the main plot is deeply unsettling. Not content to have Lockhart’s car smash into a CGI elk, Verbinski then has its antlers get stuck in the windshield, and then as the car tumbles down the hill we literally witness the elk shrieking for its life. It’s a split-second jolt of absurdity, but the film is littered with discomforting details like this. It takes images and effects that most films would omit or cut away from and instead shoves them all into our faces. Speaking of which, if dentistry makes you squeamish, you may want to think twice about this one.
If you can appreciate a filmmaker establishing a tone and then ratcheting up the tension with little regard for plot, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. At times A Cure for Wellness feels lost, almost as though it completely forgets where it’s heading. More often than not, though, the film takes a sick amount of pleasure in running us through the wringer with setpieces and tonal shifts that only serve to creep the audience out. It luxuriates in its palette of anemic greens and deep reds, with an unsettling fixation on phallic symbols and archaic medical instruments. That said, this film is far too shaggy to satisfy as a straight horror/thriller. As a relentless tone poem about quack medicine and the power of suggestion, though, A Cure for Wellness is by far the most uniquely weird feature to hit theaters in a while.Liked This? Share It!