Mortality. A constant unknown that plagues the human condition. We try to delay its effects, but no matter what – someday – the Grim Reaper will coming knocking. Sorry to start off on such a dark note, but these thoughts directly provoke Gore Verbinski’s cold-open for A Cure For Wellness. The director urges viewers towards personal fulfillment, breaking the shackles of our work-until-death mentalities. Do you want to be the guy who croaks at his desk just to earn one more Employee Of The Month award? Thus is the introduction of Verbinski’s cult-noir mystery with Lovecraftian appeal, wholly committed to resurrecting a cinematic weirdness that has escaped mainstream cinema for far too long.
On a serious note – who greenlit this picture, and how did Verbinski pitch such a strange big-budget puzzler? You just don’t see ambitious mindf&#kery like this being given studio priority anymore. Everything starts with a very Shutter Island vibe, then veers into “WTF” territory with seaward juice serums, Fountain-of-Youth undertones, the mating of pure family bloodlines – whatever enrichment the Swiss’ water supply benefits from, Verbinski is high on something.
Dane DeHaan stars as Lockhart, a hungry young executive who’s sent on a “rescue mission” to the Swiss Alps. His firm is facing a crisis that could erase their pending merger, and only its CEO (Pembroke, played by Harry Groener) can make things right. There’s just one problem – he refuses to leave the idyllic “wellness center” Lockhart arrives at. Beautiful architecture and breathtaking views release older residents from their daily stresses, but Lockhart has no time for Pembroke’s “scheduled treatments.” Director Volmer (Jason Isaacs) says that every patient has the ability to leave, so Lockhart doesn’t fret. Then he wakes up with a broken leg, under Volmer’s suggested care. Lockhart has every intention of leaving with Pembroke – it’s just too bad that Volmer has other plans.
My recap stops here, only because Verbinski’s invigorated lunacy deserves to be experienced first-hand. You’ll be tested by a story that meanders repetitively, but a third-act payoffs make good on patient promises. DeHaan maneuvers around Verbinski’s labyrinth-like sanitarium with aquatic curiosity, leading up to a finale that goes full-out camp craziness by way of Hammer-like horror classics. It’s the kind of ending that dives into a never-ending deepness, which is somewhat expected, yet captivating in Verbinski’s ability to achieve lucid storytelling freedoms. You can trust that water-aerobics and steam baths are but a luxurious cover, and rest happy knowing your viewing devotion is rewarded with delusional Gothic nuttiness.
The collective performances of DeHaan, Jason Isaacs and Mia Goth (as youngster Hannah) bubble with chaotic paranoia, as disconcerting smiles further brimming madness. Isaac’s stern assurances as Dr. Volmer push DeHaan’s “captive” further down a flooded rabbit hole filled with squirming eels. Goth’s good-girl is meant to represent a glistening reassurance of innocence, and she does a wonderful job keeping audiences tethered to human deductions – only to have DeHaan’s investigations challenge reality further and further.
Volmer prods motivation with unwavering European charms, Hannah shines as a purity beacon and Lockhart brings us to the edge of sanity in multiple ways. DeHaan mirrors a lifestyle that many of us find ourselves repeating (as I sit here, bleary-eyed and hazy after all work and no sleep), and his definition of wellness may sting like a slap to the face – but even worse, we may not be able to respond with our own cure. This is where Verbinski wants our minds to wander, built on DeHaan’s crippling predicament.
I fear that my words haven’t properly conveyed the B-Movie imagination that Verbinski so gleefully exhibits. Bright, sunshine-dressed Swiss Alps backdrops mask the dark, damp catacombs that exist below Volmer’s experimental asylum. Isaacs’ mad scientist gall hypnotizes with the utmost confidence, as before-mentioned eels play a major part in “treating” people for their delusional lifestyles.
Senior citizens play badminton and whack croquet balls while DeHaan endures one of the most painful, distressing dentist appointments caught on camera. You’ll wince and wonder your way through A Cure For Wellness, as stories about baby-obsessed Barons play into a purified water source that’s said to have healing qualities (if you listen to white-clad orderlies who operate like robots). Guards masturbate, local kids dress like metalhead vagrants, steampunk machinery brings Volmer’s operation to life – expect the unexpected, and even then, brace for impact.
Verbinski is an unflinching visual storyteller (just compare The Ring to an amateur effort like Rings), and A Cure For Wellness is quite the scenic spectacle. A winding driveway leads into an inspiring complex, thatched with wooden details and decorated with upper-crust appeal. When Lockhart passes through Volmer’s humongous iron gates, we’re awestruck by structural grandeur. A cavernous lair lets Verbinski’s production team play around with archaic technology and renaissance style, while “experimentation” rooms chill with cold isolation. I felt myself suffocating as DeHaan panicked inside a sealed sensory deprivation chamber, and wincing upon “certain” scenes of physical punishment. While it’s not constant, Verbinski certainly lives up to his gory first name whenever a true impact is meant to be felt – but he also ensures more mundane visuals still meet lofty thematics.
As a good genre exploration should, A Cure For Wellness screams messages of social satire before unraveling into an even more untamed beast. Corrupt Wall Street-types play against tyrannical medical directors, while a busy worker distracts himself with man-made accolades meant to measure human worth. Gore Verbinski isn’t pulling any punches – saying the only cure for humanity is disease – as his story slithers under our skin and never resurfaces.
It’s unwieldy at an almost two-and-a-half hour duration, and would have made for better thrills even at one-hundred minutes – but in its braggadocios final form, genre fans have a unicorn watch that surely won’t be replicated anytime soon. Points for creativity, points for ambition, and points for a studio showing the balls to back provocative genre cinema. In the words of Workaholics, “let’s get weird.” Really, astonishingly weird.
A Cure For Wellness would have been a tremendous 100 minute movie, but even at 146, points are awarded to any studio that backs such lucid genre madness.