Editor’s Note: A Cure for Wellness is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
Life-lesson alert: Never trust the German-speaking director of a throwback sanitarium in the Swiss Alps (Hohenzollern Castle, to be exact) with your life, let alone your well-being. And if you drink the supposedly refreshing, revitalizing waters of the health spa in question, stop drinking when you spot a small, wriggling creature in the water. Chances are, said wriggling creature will be detrimental to your short- and long-term health. Unfortunately, those life lessons come too late – or almost too late – for Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a Master of the Universe wannabe who unwittingly puts his sanity at risk and his life in danger when he ventures to the Vollmer Institute in Switzerland to recover and return his company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), to the United States and an impending merger, in director Gore Verbinski’s (The Lone Ranger, Rango, The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the Ring remake) welcome return to the fantasy-horror genre, A Cure for Wellness.
For Lockhart, greed, not altruism, motivates him to venture to the Old World. Forced by his superiors into recovering Pembroke – he’s broken more than a few financial regulations and laws in his ascent up the corporate ladder – Lockhart’s subjective faith in himself, his naïve faith in his ability to control the world around him, hits an objective wall (a deer) that leaves his leg in a cast and in the supposed care of the spa’s director, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Vollmer promises Lockhart healing of the physical and spiritual kind, the spa’s specialty for its selective clientele. That selective clientele includes the world’s most wealthy men and women, the captains and/or titans of industry, but there’s a catch: They’re closer to the end of their lives than to the beginning. They’re at the spa for the “cure” or the “treatment,” a regimen of diet, exercise, and something unique to the sanitarium’s local environment, the spa’s life-giving waters.
Verbinski isn’t afraid to deliver plenty of late-film scares, one involving an involuntary, Marathon Man-inspired visit to the dentist’s chair, another one involving a feeding tube and an iron lung.
Lockhart soon learns, however, that you can check out from the spa, but you can never leave. For all of Vollmer’s promises of health and wellness, the spa reeks of death and decay, of a long-ago, bygone era, an era filled with superstition and a centuries-old story about a local baron, his unhealthy interest in his sister, and life-extending experimentation. A sickly green dominates the color scheme for the spa’s interiors, but it’s the throwback production design – rooms filled with equipment from the last century – that immediately gives moviegoers anticipatory dread about the spa’s real purpose in A Cure for Wellness. Verbinski and his screenwriting partner, Justin Haythe, jettison the first act’s critique of corporate capitalism as soul- and body-crushing for existential body horror courtesy of David Cronenberg’s early filmography (e.g., Videodrome, The Brood, Scanners, Shivers, Rabid), emphasizing disgust and revulsion – often at the expense of the spa’s aging clientele and their drooping, sagging bodies – over shocks and jumps.
Verbinski, however, isn’t afraid (if “afraid” is the right word) to deliver plenty of late-film scares, one involving an involuntary, Marathon Man-inspired visit to the dentist’s chair, another one involving a feeding tube and an iron lung. Lockhart journeys from blissful ignorance to painful self- and other-knowledge, but to Verbinski and Haythe’s credit, Lockhart doesn’t receive the obligatory redemption arc (ignorance might be preferable), making Lockhart the rare protagonist who doesn’t metamorphosize into a better human being from his experiences, just someone who survives them. Add to that one of the oddest romantic interests ever put on film, Hannah (Mia Goth), the spa’s only patient under thirty, and A Cure for Wellness emerges as one of the most disturbing, discomforting horror films to come out of Hollywood (credit goes A Cure for Wellness’ German financiers too, of course).
For all of his talent as a visual stylist with few equals in or out of Hollywood, however, Verbinski’s narrative skills fail him – and by extension, the audience – repeatedly.
Like its not-so-hidden villain and its all-predictable plot, however, A Cure for Wellness suffers from bloat and self-indulgence, delusions of self-importance and faux-profundity. It’s nowhere as deep as Verbinski or Haythe initially. It’s not as original either, stitching together bits and (plot) pieces from Universal’s back catalogue of horror films, Hammer’s lush, revisionist contributions to the genre, with early Lynch (David), early Cronenberg (as mentioned), and even James Gunn’s underseen Slither as probable cinematic influences on Verbinski and his A-level team, including cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (Pete’s Dragon, the 2002 Ring remake) and production designer Eve Smart (Victor Frankenstein, The Danish Girl, Les Misérables). Kafka’s The Castle serves as a distant, but no less relevant, literary influence, specifically the spa’s brooding menace over a depopulated, fearful town. For all of his talent as a visual stylist with few equals in or out of Hollywood, however, Verbinski’s narrative skills fail him – and by extension, the audience – repeatedly. Some scenes don’t so much end, as sputter to a close before an edit brings us to the next overlong scene. Others do little to advance the plot or Lockhart as a character, existing to interminably extend the spa’s doom and gloom. It’s gorgeous, stunning doom and gloom, worthy of a visit, but not an extended, months-long stay.
Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness is gorgeous, stunning doom and gloom, worthy of a visit, but thanks to a reliance on borrowed plot points, not an extended, months-long stay.