“She’s dreaming, she just doesn’t know it.”
Cobbled together from disparate parts like a Frankensteinian beast, A Cure for Wellness manages to sprout just enough individuality to have a gripping, if not lasting, effect. The plot clearly falls into the Shutter Island line of insane asylum uneasiness, constantly question who are the patients and what is being doing to them. The tone is, at times, gothic, though in a splashy way such as Guillermo del Toro’s recent Crimson Peak. And individual beats will be familiar to anyone with a light understand of ancient myths revolving around family curses and haunted castles. Yet director Gore Verbinski finds just enough strands within a lackluster script to make something more pronounced than it might have originally been.
At first, A Cure for Wellness reads as a stark, pitch-black satire of capitalism. The title hovers above a dead body surrounded by a forest of glaring computer screens. Our protagonist, Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is first seen going through Nicotine like he’s the US press secretary sucking down cinnamon gum, all the while clacking away on his laptop and growing agitated on a phone call (the addiction metaphor is a bit too clear). He’s headed to a resort in the Swiss Alps, sent to retrieve a partner from his firm. The message, handed down in a tonally disastrous scene (there’s a prison rape joke?) with the heads of his company, is clear: you get Mr. Pembroke (Harry Groener) back here to be our scapegoat, or you become one yourself.
Confusingly, this angle is dropped relatively quickly after Lockhart arrives. This wellness center is full of old bankers and businesspeople that have retired into a life of seemingly eternal comfort. Robes and endless meals and spa sessions abound. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Switzerland, and that mystery quickly overtakes any clear social commentary the film appears to be making. Upon trying to leave the resort, Lockhart finds himself in a dire car crash and returns to the center to rest up. This is when he meets Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the head of the institution who might as well have a blaring siren atop his head screaming out “caution”. A Cure for Wellness is far from a subtle film, and that bluntness works far better once it departs the world of social commentary. There are still some notions one could draw out, about how the poison of the world is inescapable no matter how far you go from urban centers. But that would take more stretching than the film can ultimately handle. Perhaps, given how poorly Verbinski captures the satirical business arena, it’s actually a good thing that the movie decides to dumb itself down.
As Lockhart spends time at the center, he uncovers further and further layers of deceit and misdirection. The camera, guided by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, reveals these tomes of conspiracy by popping in at sharp, obtuse angles. Characters are often framed as décor, small pieces of the world around them. Reflection is utilized endlessly, drawing out questions of identity and truth. And everything is cast in a pale bluish-grey, a choice that captures a sepia-toned storybook quality the film leans into more as it goes on.
Where the story goes from here, and precisely what Lockhart uncovers, is best left within the confines of the film. You’ll likely see the turns coming from quite a distance away, given how heavily Wellness leans on motifs of history and images repeating themselves. Still, a fair job is done of doling out these answers, especially when they’re presented by the conniving, elastic evil of Isaac. He’s the actor most in tune with the campier side of things, betraying his (already quite clear) ulterior motives like the groundskeeper of a haunted carnival in Scooby-Doo. That’s fun to watch, but it’s at odds with the more cerebral surrealism Verbinski latches onto at times. This direction mostly stems from Hannah (Mia Goth), a mysterious permanent resident and the only young patient besides Lockhart. Goth, too, sells her side of things; a ceramic doll brought to life, she provides an oozing creepiness that pulls the film through some weaker sections.
However, when the climax is eventually delivered (after two false endings that seem cynical but have nothing on the true capper), these two halves are collided in a bizarre fashion. There’s the B-movie that Verbinski never quite allows Wellness to be, opposed to, say, this year’s Split that only works by burrowing so far into that pulpiness. Then there’s the unsettling bedtime story that hums along like a children’s choir cover of a pop song used in a horror trailer, blending innocence with darkness. The ending certainly leans more heavily into the pulp, but the clashing tones throughout dovetail too quickly for Verbinski to properly pull off this kind of conclusion.
In all, A Cure for Wellness is a bit of a mess because of this. There are the jabs at humor, buried beneath the deadness the film works so carefully to cultivate. There are the performances that range from subtle to extreme, with DeHaan impressively finding the middle ground throughout. These competing ideologies appear to come from those aforementioned sources of inspiration. At the same time, Wellness wants to be a bombastic horror tale of evil and a sneaky thriller about corruption and the human spirit. Yet Verbinski and Bazelli conjur images that somehow find that middle ground that certain dialogue and full action sequences never quite grab onto: an isolation tank filling with eels, a freeing dance in a townie dive bar, Hannah and Lockhart reflected in a pool with the mountains cresting behind them. The material around these moments is more absurd than the film seems to understand, but it can still deliver pure pleasure through these cinematic devices. A Cure for Wellness doesn’t make for much of a film, but the coffee table book adaptation will be one hell of a thing.