Film Review: A CURE FOR WELLNESS Is the Venom of its Own Undoing
White clad elderly patients mindlessly playing cricket on the lawn. Well-choreographed senior citizens doing aqua-aerobics with oversized beach balls. Harsh sounding Swiss-German nurses with primed coifs and steely gazes. A mysterious girl who coquettishly frolics in the wind and utters eerie pronouncements. A legend of old. A dark castle.
Not exactly items in a list of anyone’s “Favorite Things,” but perhaps the right combination of ingredients for a successfully spooky mid-February suspense thriller. Unfortunately for A Cure for Wellness and its director Gore Verbinski, the medicine is harsher than the disease, and the only working antidote is to not play into the uneven film’s game at all.
A Cure For Wellness’ plot is straightforward and even familiar. The young and ambitious corporatist Mr. Lockhart (Dane De Haan) is sent by his slightly demonic bosses on a mission to retrieve the CEO of the financial behemoth that employs them, from seclusion in a mysterious spa at the top of a mountain at the foot of the Swiss Alps. There, he encounters unexplained occurrences and eccentric characters starting with the institution’s director (Jason Isaacs) and a lanky under-sexualized teen patient played by Mia Goth. Lockhart soon becomes an unwitting patient himself (after an unfortunate encounter with a stray deer), whereupon he begins to suspect that there may be, literally, something in the water.
Verbinski was clearly going for a more outlandish version of Shutter Island, using fantastical dystopian elements from Stepford Wives and Body Snatchers to round out the picture. His style is uniquely visually appealing, particularly for his lyrical if overwrought use of allegory and light, of panoramic views clouded just enough with steel for maximum creepiness. The technological prowess he showed off most vividly in The Ring is on full display here, and A Cure for Wellness is, at least at times, a magnificently pleasing patchwork of thrilling lighting and juxtaposition of the supernatural with the shockingly real.
Sure, it is all quite heavy-handed and seems uniquely staged. Doozies such as “the unclean melding of two equally diseases institutions” resonate and contrast with images of primly clad female executives speaking softly and then breaking into threats that involve twelve inches, prisons, and the backside. Water is a recurring and arguably central motif—water as the provider of life, as the building block of life, but also, as it happens in this film, as perhaps the taker of it.
But you can forgive the overly dramatized style of any psychological horror thriller, you can set aside the recycled nature of the story, if the payoff is worth it, if the ultimate revelation leaves you either freaked out, spooked out, or at least psychologically scarred. The lack of subtlety is excusable if the endgame is rewarding.
A Cure for Wellness achieves none of the above. Instead, it telegraphs, rather loudly, the secret lying behind the dungeon walls, the sinister doings of the denizens of this idyllic Swiss resort. In early sequences, Lockhart is told of an ancient legend involving dukes, burning people alive, and incest, all snowballing into a man’s obsession to find a cure for some unidentified disease. Perhaps the one thing that you will not immediately guess is what that disease may be—everything else is obvious almost from inception—though even there you’ll likely be tragically nonplussed at discovering the outcome.
And the problem is not only that the ending is two parts pointless and three parts predictable, it’s also that the movie’s entire set up does not live up to its clear potential. The opening sequences feature a man mysteriously collapsing, and show us Lockhart as he struggles to maintain his humanity in the face of that soul-sucking corporate rat race. As Lockhart assiduously pops Nicorette gum alongside airplane bottles of gin, as the deep bags under his eyes take a toll while he visits his asylum-bound mother, you are promised a cure from ourselves. The vanishing CEO left a letter decrying the evil and sterile nature of corporate America, of the endless search for that extra dollar that leaves us all poorer for the wear.
But it is not to be. The only additional allusions to this tease for the rest of the film are some of the other patients at the supposed spa, mostly retirees who amassed vast fortunes but now predictably have no one to love them. As the mystery of this heavenly retreat begins to unravel, Verbinski wholly abandons any pretense that this movie is going to be any deeper search into what makes us tick in a gruesomely capitalistic world, and how to rescue ourselves from it.
Instead, the filmmaker resorts to what is now a sure sign of mediocrity in the genre, that of a character carrying on business as almost usual in the face of growing insanity around him. That Lockhart somehow finds himself back at the no longer blissful establishment after seeing eels surrounding him in therapeutic water, after having a teeth drilled off against his will, and after witnessing other horrors, simply makes no sense. By the time the façades of the evildoers melt off, you’re simply rooting for one to finish the other off to get it over. There is particularly no excuse for the bloated runtime—additional scenes of bodies being desecrated or floating around like test tube subjects isn’t one of them.
It is unfortunate when a movie like A Cure for Wellness shows so much promise—as this story does for the first forty-five minutes or so—and then goes completely off the rails. Tighter editing may have helped, but it is really the uninteresting story that is at fault. As aesthetically pleasing as you will find it—and of that there is no doubt—it will be equally emotionally unsatisfying, and will provide a cure for nothing whatsoever, not even boredom, let alone wellness.