Written by: Justin Haythe (screenplay), Justin Haythe & Gore Verbinski (story)
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There is a sickness inside us rising, like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats."
There’s a deceptive slickness to A Cure for Wellness. Initially unfolding among sleek, soulless corporate boardrooms and a sterile health resort, it postures as some austere, refined work. Modern high-rises stretch into ominous skies, while a shiny bullet train glides through rural Switzerland, its glossy windows reflecting a countryside that’s every bit as stolid. Every inch of Gore Verbinski’s frame feels like it’s soaked in a clinical haze, almost as if it’s been consciously scrubbed of the sickness that’s lurking just below the surface, threatening at all times to reveal the truly perverse heart beating at the center of this twisted film. Everything about its façade suggests an antiseptic treatise on the modern malaise, but make no mistake: A Cure for Wellness is ultimately a throwback to the wild, whirlwind fevers of gothic horror. It’s arguably the weirdest, boldest recent major studio horror effort this side of Crimson Peak, a film with which it impossibly shares strands of DNA.
Granted, you’ll have to sift through what appears to be a thin premise stretched across a daunting 146-minute runtime. Despite what such a length may suggest, narrative complexity isn’t on the bill here, nor does it even take that long for the plot to be set into motion: on the heels of receiving a monster promotion, young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is called into a meeting with his superiors, all of whom are perplexed by a mysterious letter from the company’s CEO, Mr. Pembroke. After taking a retreat to a Swiss health resort, Pembroke has sent back some ominous words relating his awakening about the rat race he’s been running for his entire career. Everyone agrees that he’s lost his mind, but that’s not what worries the board: rather, they need the CEO on hand so a gigantic merger can be secured. And because they’ve got dirt on Lockhart, they dispatch him to do their dirty work and retrieve Pembroke.
He arrives at a foreboding place nestled high in the hills of Switzerland, fairly far removed from the small town that passes as civilization in this parts. It’s quaint enough, though there’s something unsettling about the eerie stillness surrounding the place. Everyone seems to be a little too happy to be there, almost as if they’ve been subjected to some otherworldly treatment. When a car accident forces Lockhart to be stranded in the place, he uncovers the facility’s disturbing inner-workings, which include everything from eels slithering into sensory deprivation chambers to a mysterious girl (Mia Goth) who’s essentially been held under lock and key her entire life. Needless to say, there is some very weird shit going on here.
Viewers wade through all of it right alongside Lockhart, compelled mostly by the mystery of it all. Screenwriter Justin Haythe has crafted an alluring mystery out of a story co-written with Verbinski, one that keeps its revelations just at arm’s reach for about two hours as it teases multiple possibilities. Given the film’s length, it’s no surprise that each bizarre occurrence is spaced out rather deliberately; what’s more, there’s genuinely no filter, so the abundance of weird shit ranges from “gratuitous nonsense” to “completely warranted.” Because of this, you’re subjected to the likes of a scene featuring a random striptease and masturbation that winds up having zero bearing on the plot and exists only to add a layer of sleaze—not that I disapprove.
In fact, that’s just sort of how A Cure for Wellness operates. Its length isn’t in the service of spinning some elaborate, epic yarn so much as it functions as a crucible: each element feels as if it’s been deliberately forged and extracted just so, from the mannered dialogue exchanges to the careful, calculating camera movements. After a while, the unhurried pacing just begins to work on you, almost as if you can’t escape the sordid inevitability of Lockhart’s investigation. Fittingly, his probing resembles a downward spiral that carries him deep into the bowels of the institute and beyond. Every moment gives off the impression of a slow descent—into madness, into perversion, into the lurid past. A Cure for Wellness is disturbing in its insistence that you bear witness all of its wretchedness—from the floating, mummified corpses to its flesh-peeling character revelations--with eyes wide open for nearly two and a half hours.
It’s a case where purposeful excess buoys an otherwise familiar narrative, albeit one that takes so many twists and turns that it manages to thrill and delight regardless. Specters of several films flit about in your consciousness, the most unavoidable being Shutter Island; truthfully, though, beyond the general premise, Verbinski and Scorsese’s films have very little in common, especially in regards to where they eventually wind up. Where Scorsese’s film is an examination of guilt and psychological fragility, Verbinksi’s is anything but that. In fact, it’s much more preoccupied with base, perverse pleasures of the flesh and literal immortality. Obviously, it takes some insane diversions to arrive here, but I couldn’t be more delighted that it does because it ends up so deep into my wheelhouse that it may as well have sprung from a dream I may have had after huffing a horror movie marathon that included the likes of Baron Blood, Phantom of the Opera, and a bunch of vintage Vincent Price.
I almost can’t believe someone at Fox handed Verbinski $40 million to make a movie that could be described as such. Without spoiling the particulars, rest assured that most of the film’s narrative intrigue rests in the continually unfolding backstory surrounding the institute. On his first approach to the ominous facility, Lockhart learns that the site once housed the estate of a mad baron who was obsessed with conceiving a perfect, pure child with his own sister. Local citizens didn’t take to such blasphemy back in those days and subsequently torched the place to the ground. At first, this local lore feels like a nice embellishment, a bit of a grace note to add to the already bizarre ambience; over time, however, its shadow lengthens and lingers over the proceedings, leading to a fantastic climactic sequence that allows Verbinski to let his gothic flag fly in earnest. You’d never guess it based on the marketing (or even its first half), but A Cure for Wellness ultimately shares many of the sensibilities that guided Crimson Peak, and that’s nothing to shrug at. If anything, I wish del Toro’s masterwork had inspired dozens of copycats by now.
One area where it can’t quite hang with Crimson Peak, however, is the character department. Del Toro painted a rich tapestry with well-written characters and compelling performances, something Verbinski seems less interested in. While DeHaan is fine as Lockhart, he often comes off as more of a blank cipher who functions more to uncover shit for the audience. There’s a subplot dedicated to the trauma he experienced after witnessing his dad’s suicide as a kid, plus some stuff involving his recently-deceased mother, but you never sense this is what the film is actually about (and how could you when the ending involves sexual trauma, eels, and melting flesh?). Even if the sheer lunacy invites awe, it has the effect of losing these character threads in the process. On the other hand, it does benefit Jason Isaacs, who finally comes unhinged as. Heinreich Volmer, the obviously mad doctor presiding over the institution. What you don’t know is just how mad he is, and watching the truth unfold is a sick delight.
More interesting than either of her male co-stars is Goth, who features as Hannah, the enigmatic girl that roams the grounds as a “special patient.” Goth has an immediately magnetic—if not exotic—presence looms over the film, which treats her as a special, mysterious object, only occasionally taking a moment or two to consider her as an actual person. Her secluded upbringing has rendered her awkward and self-conscious, as evidenced by a brief interaction with a group of teens in the neighboring town. The seeds of a genuine story involving Hannah’s desire to finally be “pretty” are planted in theory, but it’s hard to say they bear fruit when she spends most of the climax tied down to a bed (to his credit, Verbinski does reserve a righteous moment for her after this).
If not for the half-baked character and thematic threads, A Cure for Wellness may have emerged as a legitimate masterwork. As it stands, however, it at least functions as a reminder of what Verbinksi is capable of when he’s channeling his formidable visual skills into pure nightmare fuel. Just as The Ring was soaked with ambiance and unnerving imagery, so too is A Cure for Wellness, a film that almost feels baroque in its macabre sensibilities. Explicit, on-screen violence is relatively minimal, yet every instance absolutely impacts because they’re so excruciatingly captured. When I wasn’t cringing at these moments, I was constantly squirming because the film just feels genuinely gross, what with its unflinching depiction of various bodily fluids, carnivorous eels, rape, and preserved fetuses. Major studio horror typically arrives much more sanitized, with the edges having been thoroughly dulled down by test screenings and focus groups.
A Cure for Wellness feels like an exquisitely—and explicitly—designed “fuck you” to this approach. Whatever flaws it has—the undercooked characters, the absurd runtime—are easily forgiven in light of just how daring it feels at times. It’s only fitting that a sincere ambition guides a film that eventually hearkens back to the unmoored, unrepentant passions of the gothic genre. Say what you want about it, but any film that dares to be this bold deserves some credit for rising above the morass of forgettable horror products major studios usually spit out.
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