Synopsis: An ambitious young executive is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center”, but soon suspects that the spa’s treatments are not what they seem. (Source)
A Cure for Wellness isn’t a film you watch, it’s one you get lost in. From minute to minute, Gore Verbinski’s extravagant schlock is so aggressively bizarre and unhinged, I couldn’t believe it even existed within the mainstream studio system. It’s no doubt a film like this will alienate mass audiences, but horror buffs will find it an impeccable love letter to classic horror, albeit with modern sensibilities and its own brand of perversity. Though there is a thin thread of substance, the film’s real treat is getting to see how Verbinski’s fever dream envelopes us, literally plunging our heads into murky waters as we try to grasp for breath. In short, this is an eerie funhouse of dark delights, and I loved every gorgeously shot second of it.
The plot follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young, ambitious executive for an unnamed financial services firm. His giant company is on the brink of a major merger, but they need him to retrieve its CEO, Roland Pembroke, to close the deal. As it turns out, Pembroke has taken leave at a mysterious wellness spa in the Swiss Alps, sending along a cryptic letter of his intention to never return. Upon reaching his destination, Lockhart is met with open arms by the spa’s guests, who ask him if he’s there for “the cure”. As for the staff, they answer questions through misdirection, while the spa’s director, a Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), meets any sort of inquiry with cryptic allusions. Something is definitely off within the castle’s labyrinthian corridors, but before Lockhart can secure Pembroke, he’s victim to a crippling car accident. Awakening as an unwilling patient at the spa and confined to castle grounds, Lockhart scours for answers which he isn’t prepared for.
Verbinski’s film is dense and almost impenetrable in the best way. At its heart, the story is critiquing a somnambulist society who’d rather live a dream than confront reality, but it’s the director’s command of style as substance that really takes hold. The film is a waking nightmare from start to finish, strikingly shot and with imagery that is as haunting as it is beautiful. As such, a film like this is more than jump scares or momentary shocks, but a something that delights in its own patient journey to the truth, regarding its uneasy build as important as the payoff. In that sense, the film’s most overt villain is Verbinski’s sense of setting, which allows its oppressive, beautiful castle to wrap around us with suffocating precision. Bojan Bazelli’s photography contrasts rich color with long corridors bathed in darkness, showcasing a grandiose horror rarely seen nowadays, while Verbinski layers the film with a handful of fascinating leitmotifs – eels, water, a ballerina and more. Trading blood-drenched imagery for a fear of water, the film’s metaphors drown us literally and metaphorically in ways that are hypnotic. This is the type of film that makes more sense viscerally than logically, and it makes for a truly disorienting experience, one that supports its tonal shifts with sinister glee and builds to a truly twisted conclusion.
Though the film’s characters are admittedly a bit flat, the performances keep pace with its shifty plot. As Lockhart, Dane DeHaan is deliberately unlikable, a workaholic with an unescapable trauma who is always looking ahead while missing what’s in front of him. DeHaan nails a deep disdain for those “below” him and undergoes a transformation that feels right. As the mysterious Dr. Volmer, Jason Isaacs brings a classical flavor to the role, feeling ripped right out of a stage production, and offering solace and warmth to his patients with only the slightest hint of menace. He treads a fine line throughout, making it hard to guess his motives. As Hannah, Mia Goth leaves a mark, the youngest patient at the institution in more ways than one. Her state of mind and the innocence she portrays figure largely into the story’s implications, and she delivers a character with deep nuance.
A Cure for Wellness is a behemoth to behold, but despite its unwieldy runtime, ambiguity and blatant disregard for logic, Verbinski’s film is one of the genre’s biggest surprises. You can feel the influences here, Kubrick’s The Shining, Scorsese’s Shutter Island and even a healthy dose of Lovecraft, but Verbinski has the unique voice needed to stitch these influences together without feeling like shoddy lip service. In my opinion, this film’s got cult classic written all over it, something poised to be glossed over during its release, but bound to be rediscovered with time. Without a doubt, this is the work of a filmmaker who’s thrown all caution to the wind, and it makes for a wild, WTF-drenched nightmare that’s sure to hold up with repeated viewings.