Caution: this essay contains spoilers!
Anti-hero Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is on a fast track to the Executive Floor. When his firm undergoes some financial – as well as legal – troubles, Lockhart is chosen to retrieve the vacationing board member Pembroke (Harry Groener) so he may assist in keeping the scandal under wraps. Lockhart travels to a luxury spa resort located in the Swiss Alps, but when he arrives, he soon learns there’s something a bit more sinister going on than just steam baths. Every leeway he makes in his investigation is marred by the devious Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who is quick to administer Lockhart “the cure.” Along the way, he meets the young and seemingly out-of-place Hannah (Mia Goth), who is just as mysterious as the spa itself.
By pushing back the release date from September 2016 to February 2017, 20th Century Fox made it clear they didn’t believe much in A Cure For Wellness. And, judging by the box office reception, neither did filmgoers. To date, the film has grossed around $26 million worldwide—well short of its $40 million budget. Critical reception was a mixed bag, with even our own Billy Ray Brewton poo-pooing the film. But, as the Blu-Ray was released this week, I’d like to offer the World of Cinepunx a different perspective: let’s focus on everything that it does right (which, if you’re willing to give it the time it deserves, proves to be a considerable amount). A Cure For Wellness is a visual feast; every shot is laid out carefully and beautifully. And, if you look under the surface to what the film is saying, you’ll see a remarkable commentary on the human condition.
Foremost, it’s important to note that A Cure For Wellness is completely original material. With studio tentpoles relying more and more on comic books, remakes, and too-long-overdue sequels, this truly is a rarity. The mere fact that this movie was even made—by a big studio, no less—should be recognized as a huge win for risk-taking cinema, and this film deserves to be respected for that reason alone. There’s a special kind of magic in going to a theater to see a film that is not derived from anything we’re already familiar with; when there’s no source material with which to compare, we can relax and just enjoy what the movie does for us. We’re along for the journey. And the journey A Cure For Wellness takes us on is mystical and curious; as captivating as any fairy tale, because that’s what it essentially is.
But let’s first examine the director’s touches that make A Cure For Wellness so unique. Gore Verbinski receives a fair amount of criticism that alleges he is not, nor ever was, an auteur. This dismissal of the director and his work is disheartening, as it assumes that to be an auteur, a director must continually make the same kind of film in exactly the same style. Verbinski’s “auteur-ship” is often overlooked because his films span a range of genres and topics. We recognize something from David Lynch or Wes Anderson immediately from visual style itself, and we know a Martin Scorsese film from his treatment of his subject matter. But, with Verbinski, his directorial eye is subtler: in terms of lighting, framing, and editing, the techniques Verbinski makes use of are a constant. If you make the effort, you’ll see that Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring are directed by the same person (the skillful and symbolic use of wide angle shots alone should do the trick). Ultimately, he has a keen ability of marrying the seriousness of an arthouse film with pop sensibilities that would likely be disregarded in lesser hands. A Cure For Wellness is not discounted in this. There are earmarks all over it that scream “VERBINSKI!” Stylish visuals, an eye for the morbid, and examination of mortality are all present in this film. Once more, by staying true to his vision, Verbinski has successfully crafted a major studio release that feels like an independent production.
The film introduces us to several underlying themes, even early on. Mrs. Watkins, an inquisitive patient at the spa who enjoys crossword puzzles, asks for a ten-letter word meaning “amnesty.” After her two gentleman friends draw a blank, the eavesdropping Lockhart offers, “Absolution.” It fits. What the film is proposing is the idea of sickness as an absolution. The film’s opening sequence sets up precisely what kind of characters we are going to be following: we watch as a man working overtime in an office suffers a fatal heart attack. We see that he was recently awarded “Salesman of the Year,” and can assume the stress of his job is what sealed his fate. It’s a powerful commentary on the corporate state of mind: the individualist philosophy of “every man for himself” has yielded cutthroat results. To advance in one’s career and acquire wealth, one must possess an uncanny amount of ambition. This ambition can be toxic, leading to an “only the strongest survive” attitude, and causing men (and women) to step on each other in a potentially very evil way. These executives are out in the business world crushing skulls – screwing people over to get ahead, at whatever the cost. And that’s where the notion of absolution comes in. That “kill or be killed” corporate attitude eventually leads to mental anguish, and sufferers don’t understand why they are feeling they way they do. So these executives and other types of greedy, egocentric people go on this luxury spa vacation and see this doctor, and he tells them their behavior is all okay because they’re just not well. Imagine: Don’t worry about being an asshole; you’re sick. It’s understandable. You’re absolved! The special features on the Blu-Ray release include a deleted sequence where Lockhart is speaking with two other patients – the same two who are present in the earlier scene with Mrs. Watkins. Lockhart says, “My whole life I’ve lied and cheated and fucked people over to get ahead. That’s why they sent me here, and I can’t even do that right.” The men, playing a game of cards, answer him: “We’ve all done terrible things. You’re not responsible because you’re not well,” says one. And the other adds, “Accept the diagnosis, and you will see.”
So this is where we come to the concept of wellness itself. We’re conditioned by our doctors and the pharmaceutical industry to think that whatever pill we’re taking will cure what ails us; all we have to do is keep swallowing. We are all slaves to our prescriptions, and none of us ever seem to get better. Cynically speaking, the wellness industry wants to keep us just sick enough that we’ll keep making appointments – that we’ll keep buying their medicine – never with the intention of offering a genuine cure. We’re strung along and preyed upon as a result of our desperation for a remedy. And that’s exactly how this dazzling retreat in the Alps operates. No one wants to believe that he or she is really an evil person; no one wants to take that responsibility. So there’s this place that exists, this wonderland in the clouds, so to speak, where they can go to relax and work through their anguish until they’re cured. And they wholeheartedly believe in that place, completely unaware they’re being duped. “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is?” Dr. Volmer asks. “Disease. Because that’s the only way one could hope for a cure.”
The film’s length is often the subject of criticism; however, there’s so much going on, so much to endure and absorb, that the length isn’t actually a test of patience at all. It’s a slow burn, a procession of the inevitable. Lockhart is figuring out the mystery, and so are we. Lockhart is overcome by the surreal, and so are we. The story has both him and us under a spell, revealing just enough at every corner to keep us intrigued. Verbinski (along with his stellar Director of Photography, Bojan Bazelli) shows us very surreal, dreamlike images throughout the film that potentially border on the nightmarish. Disturbing images of a person falling from a ledge, jars of pulled teeth and preserved fetuses, carnivorous eels, and creepy robed figures are used throughout the film. Those impactful images are coupled with less apparent – but no less off-putting – images of the castle on the hill, vines creeping up stone walls, and large pools of standing water. Verbinski purposely shows us these things gradually to build momentum, adding to the tension and suspense. There are plot details, too, that give it a foreboding tonality. A simple example is, strangely, we never even learn Lockhart’s first name. And more: Lockhart doesn’t think twice about signing what he thinks is a visitor’s form, but what turns out to be a voluntary admittance to the hospital. The hospital staff repeatedly self-administer mysterious drops of “vitamins” from old tyme apothecary bottles. At a key revelation in the film, fellow patients mob around Lockhart, much like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead. All of these features, along with the amount of time and care Verbinski puts into fleshing out his story and fully immersing us into it are what makes A Cure For Wellness an extremely gratifying horror film.
Verbinski’s exquisite use of magical realism evokes the most traditional of gothic fairy tales. These elements abound in the story! Volmer keeps his sinister nature hidden behind a figurative (and, as we learn in the third act, literal) mask, and this “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is a clear storybook reference. Water is a constant, symbolizing both life and death, reminding us of the life-giving essence of a mother’s womb, and the life-taking force of the sea. Lockhart’s mother passes away before he leaves for Switzerland – in a tragic scene, he stands by his suitcase while his mother is cremated, implying his commitment to his career ambitions are unwavering – and he is unable to make good on his promise to discharge her from assisted living and relocate her to a place near the beach. When Lockhart first lays eyes on Hannah, she is standing on a ledge on the castle wall, overlooking the mountain road. We as the audience are there with him, wondering if the young woman he’s seeing is real, or if she’s the product of some kind of hallucination (at this point in the story, Lockhart has just ignored the warning of the hired car’s driver to not drink the water). When Lockhart searches the compartments of the steam bath for Pembroke and he’s lost in the unending passageways and thick fog, there is a definite feeling that he’s in a survival horror video game. He’s led to Pembroke by an apparition of a large deer, just like the one that causes the car accident which keeps him at the spa. Are these illusions? Are the eels that swim into the isolation tank and fill his toilet tank real, or are they only haunting him? All these things function to have us just as confused and hungry for an answer as Lockhart is.
Lockhart’s mother has a hobby of painting tiny ballerina figurines, and gives him one as a token. “She’s not like the others,” she says. He remarks, “She’s dancing.” Her reply is, “That’s because she doesn’t know she’s dreaming.” This statement could be applicable to either Hannah or Lockhart—or, really, both. Hannah is the literal ballerina of the story, delicately dancing and singing her morose tunes. She’s ‘asleep’ because her entire life has been false; she has no idea who she really is. Lockhart, however, is also asleep, but in a different way. Verbinski has repeatedly referred to this story as a sort of “Reverse Sleeping Beauty,” where, instead of slumbering the entire time, Lockhart wakes up in the spa and finds himself in this strange unreality in which he must maneuver – but, is he spiritually awake? He’s still trapped in the ethos of his corporate mission; he still exhibits that demanding and cutthroat executive mentality. As noble as his goal to escape the nefarious spa and its doctors may be, he’s still that “asshole businessman” who can’t see that his ambition is killing him. A turning point comes when he realizes Hannah’s true identity, and finally begins to think about someone other than himself. Fast forward to the end of the film when Lockhart confronts his company’s executives on the windy mountain road, and we catch a hopeful glimpse that perhaps he has finally woken. In a surprising twist, Lockhart’s story arc isn’t as dismal as we think it might be earlier in the film.
In the third act, the film radically transforms into an evocation of the macabre realm of Roger Corman and classic Hammer Horror. This homage to 1970s schlock is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable aspects of this film, even if it does contain a bit of material that may be distasteful to some viewers. Yet, that material does serve a purpose to the story; it’s there to further the abhorrent characteristics of Volmer, and it’s important to note that a film’s depiction of violence or sexual assault doesn’t equate to an endorsement of such a behavior. We are supposed to feel bad when these things are presented to us; we are supposed to despise the villain. Part of the reason this film is appealing is that it takes these types of risks, that it confronts objectionable behavior. This is R-rated gothic horror, and unlike its predecessors from Hammer Film Productions, the representations of female characters aren’t so static. The aforementioned Mrs. Watkins’s contribution to Lockhart’s investigation is integral, helping him snap back into reality at the most necessary time. And then there’s the dreamy Hannah, who, during the course of the film, realistically experiences the first throes of womanhood. What’s more, she’s exposed to a deeply perverse version of love, one that undoubtedly will haunt her for the rest of her life. Fittingly, Hannah gets her vindication by delivering the final blow to her disgusting dad – a celebratory moment for the audience! A Cure For Wellness may be an homage to exploitation, but it surely isn’t an example of it.
A Cure For Wellness is an incredibly complex film that is very rewarding if you let it be. Gore Verbinski has gifted the world with an intricate fairy tale, a visually irresistible work of art so stunning that at times it skirts the line between fantasy and reality. Unfortunately the Blu-Ray release doesn’t have a director’s commentary, and the special features offered, although interesting, are kind of skimpy. Included, though, are the darkly enjoyable “Water Is The Cure,” “Air Is The Cure,” and “Earth Is The Cure” featurettes, which are quite reminiscent in tone to something that would be produced by the Scarfolk Council. This film absolutely deserves the attention of any film lover, and the abject adoration of fans of deliberate and beautiful gothic horror. To paraphrase the director Nicolas Winding Refn, a film stirs the soul when so many people love it and hate it for the same reasons. And that, friends, is exactly the case for A Cure For Wellness.