There’s something about the super-clean environment of a spa that just feels, well, dirty. Gore Verbinski’s imaginative thriller, A Cure for Wellness could just as easily be titled The Duality of Cleanliness with how gruesomely it captures the juxtaposition of sanitization and, ugh, dampness. It’s a slimy, messy affair for sure, but the man behind the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and the American update of The Ring just slyly released one of the boldest blockbusters in ages. So rare is it that a filmmaker like Verbinski is given such freedom (and so much money!) to explore a truly mad idea that despite its many faults, and many, MANY moments of sloppy plotting, A Cure for Wellness is a breath of fresh (moldy) air.
Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a real corporate jerk in the making who, after narrowly skirting legal trouble resultant from his cutthroat business tactics, is sent on a mission to the Volmer institute, a luxurious(?) spa resort where the super-wealthy go to rid themselves of impurities. A shareholder at his company has checked into Volmer, and Lockhart must retrieve him so he can sign off on a company-saving merger. Should be a simple enough task.
It’s a spa, not a jail.
As Lockhart mingles with the denizens of the resort, an undercurrent of madness and desperation bubbles just below the surface. When a brutal car wreck leaves him injured and with limited mobility, he finds that nobody leaves the Volmer institute, not even wiry character actors who alternate from looking like Beavis or Butthead based on their hair color.
Hohenzollern Castle, located in the lower Swiss Alps is the stand-in for the resort, and it’s positively inspiring to see an actual, tangible location being used to full effect. Surely there are green-screened enhancements (some almost too noticeable – more on that later), but by and large the environment is real. This is important for a film like this one, which, if stripped of its soul, would expose glaring plot contrivances to the point of distraction. Just what do the (very) crazy things which occur actually mean? Do any of the litany of gut-wrenching horrors actually contribute to the mystery? No matter. The imposing physicality of the institute works to aggressively suspend the viewer’s disbelief. By laying a heavy blanket of pressure on the action it makes watching Lockhart tread narrative water only to barely peek over the surface more than enough to keep the house of cards from falling.
It’s only much later, after the 2.5 hour film has ended, that I found myself attempting to pick apart its events. I do wonder if it will hold up upon repeat viewings, but ultimately I don’t suspect I’ll care too much. It’s just too much fun to behold.
This is Verbinksi’s Crimson Peak. But unlike Del Toro’s inaccurately advertised gothic romance, I don’t foresee any apologies being made on the film’s behalf. A Cure for Wellness wears its strangeness on its sleeve with all the subtlety of the era of James Whale and Lon Chaney. It’s in this spirit that the more obvious green screen shots are forgivable, beautiful even. They don’t feel like moments of budgetary necessity so much as they feel like the modern version of a hand-painted backdrop – par for the course in in the horror of the 30s and 40s. And I counted no fewer than three stunt performers fully engulfed in flames. Is there a greater gift in the world of cinema than a flaming stuntman? Not in my book.
The mystery itself is hardly mysterious, devoid of any big ‘A-ha!’ moments, and it all comes together in precisely the way anyone whose seen a movie before would expect, but that doesn’t make it any less of a potently unsettling journey. Good storytelling is all about character, and the arc across which Lockhart traverses is as good as it gets.
Along for the ride are an absolutely stellar Mia Goth as the institute’s youngest patient, and Jason Isaacs, who plays the villainous head doctor with a clinical madness that would make the rogues gallery of Hammer Studios proud.
Did I mention it has the most intensely nauseating dental torture sequence since Marathon Man? Because it sooooo does.
Is it safe? No.
Before focusing on A Cure for Wellness, Verbinski had begun work on a big-screen adaptation of Bioshock, but the project ultimately fell through. No matter. You can see the Bioshock DNA coursing through every moment (think Halo‘s influence on District 9). In fact, A Cure for Wellness makes me happy that the Bioshock film is, ahem, dead in the water, because this strange mashup of influences is surely the more interesting project.
Whether the film is received well will be up to the individual viewer. There’s a LOT of movie here with plenty of fat to chew on, but it’s delicious fat delivered at a hasty clip through the lens of one of the most inventive mainstream filmmakers of our time. It’s not often that big budget studio fare plays it so unsafe, and that alone should be applauded, supported, and consumed by all those with the stomach to do so.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.