A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017)
From Gore Verbinski (director of the terrific supernatural thriller The Ring but also, alas, The Lone Ranger) comes a creepy tale of unnatural doings in the Swiss Alps. We don’t start there, however, but instead begin our story in a New York office building, where an unknown middle-aged financier collapses from a heart attack while drinking from a water cooler. As he falls to the ground the camera follows him down, settling into an off-kilter composition that seems to lend the moment great portent. This will surely be a major plot point. Well, yes and no. This death does indirectly lead to the reason for which our hero, a young man named Lockhart, will be sent from concrete jungle to rocky mountain, but at the same time there is no particular reason that this minor character deserves such cinematic attention as he dies. Herein lies both the appeal and the flaw of A Cure for Wellness: beautifully shot and edited, with gorgeous production design, it overplays its hand by making everything an augury. When all is fraught with meaning, there is little room for nuance.
Lockhart is played by Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings), who brings a feverish intensity to the part of an initially callous up-and-comer who is sent on a mission (in lieu of our dead friend) to rescue a partner at his financial firm (a kind of über-capitalist hedge fund) who has given up all worldly goods to sit in a sanatorium and soak out his many sins. So off Lockhart goes, but not before visiting dear old mom, who sits in an institution of her own, unable to care for herself without help. We learn that Lockhart is the son of a man – from the same world of high-finance that he now inhabits – who killed himself years earlier as his own penance for misbegotten deeds. This detail will surface again later, mentioned by the villain, and we’ll see Lockhart’s old lady in a strange montage when Lockhart has a near-death experience of his own, but ultimately none of this has any real bearing on the main proceedings. It’s merely window dressing to give Lockhart a sense of three-dimensionality.
Instead, the story comes into focus once we reach the castle on the hill – location of the spa – where Lockhart goes to find his charge. Surrounded by woods and wildlife, with a village of hostile locals below, the clinic is both alluring and forbidding. Lockhart cares nothing for its charms, as he just wants to grab his guy and get out. Such rushed plans are not to be, however, and soon, courtesy of a representative of the local fauna who, in a sequence again laden with omen, causes the accident that lands Lockhart in bed, leg in a cast, back at the clinic. He is now a patient, at the mercy of the clinic’s director, Dr. Volmer, a handsome devil if there ever was one, complete with German accent. As played by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, a series where the villain’s name also began with V), he oozes unction and officiousness in equal measure. Lockhart senses – as do we, with the mise-en-scène telegraphing evil intentions everywhere – that something is wrong, but what can he do? Drink the Kool-Aid and pretend he doesn’t notice? How about the water, instead, since that what everyone is telling him to do?
Well, perhaps that’s not the best idea, since that liquid seems inhabited by small slithering shapes. At a loss of what to do, Lockhart wanders the grounds, where he meets a teenage girl named Hannah (Mia Goth, The Survivalist), the ward of Volmer, whose wide-eyed innocence belies a reservoir of knowledge about the clinic that seems timeless. Before long, she, Lockhart and Volmer will find themselves locked in a strange battle for survival that mixes bloodlust, incest and a horde of carnivorous eels in what can best be described as an unholy mess that still manages to entertain when it isn’t preposterous. As an exercise in tone and setting, it is masterful; as a story, it fails completely. Nice poster, though.