DIRECTED BY: Gore Verbinski
FEATURING: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener
PLOT: A young executive goes to a remote spa planning to recover his company’s CEO, who appears to have gone insane and joined a wellness cult; circumstances lead him to become a patient as he investigates the place and learns its dark secrets.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s uneven to the point of frustration, A Cure for Wellness could be the weirdest Hollywood-backed movie of the year, making it one we need to consider. Gore Verbinski blew all the Hollywood goodwill he earned from directing the Pirates of the Caribbean series on this majestic vanity, so we are unlike to see anything this strange in cineplexes for a while.
COMMENTS: A Cure for Wellness is a spin on “Dracula”‘s basic plot. Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, the Jonathan Harker character, sent to fetch the Reinfield character (Harry Groener as CEO Pembroke) from the castle (now a sanitarium on a Swiss mountaintop) run by a mysterious aristocrat (now hospital director Volmer, a name that sounds like it could have come out of an unpublished Bram Stoker novella). The villagers living at the base of the mountain despise the residents of the castle—er, spa—-and there are even legends about ancient degenerate evils perpetrated by an evil Baron on the site now occupied by the sanitarium. There’s a Mina Harker-ish love interest (Mia Goth’s waify Hannah, enticing both Lockhart and Volmer). The bulk of the film has Lockhart imprisoned and convalescing, under friendly pretenses, in the demonic lair, investigating his surroundings and his host and making terrifying discoveries (Harker’s scenes inside the vampire’s castle were always the best part of “Dracula”). Water takes the place of blood as a symbol of the leeched life-force.
It’s a sturdy and well-tested horror structure, disguised just enough by the modern setting. Unfortunately, it does not completely pay off. Gore Verbinski has a chance to update the dusty old tale with new satirical furnishings: digs at the modern corporate structure and the wellness movement. The targets are set up, but not knocked down. Lockhart has a rich psychological backstory explaining how he became such a selfishly driven bastard, but while flashbacks suggest this history might hold a key to the story’s deeper meaning, it turns out to be either window dressing or a red herring. A Cure for Wellness can’t decide if it wants to be a straight horror story, a twisty psychological thriller, or a pure Surrealist dream movie. It doesn’t commit to any one of these genres, and in the end it settles for what may be the least interesting possible compromise between the trio of possibilities. (A movie’s not knowing what it wants to be is no bar to weirdness, but in this case I suspect the rough edges are more a result of uncertain waffling than inspired dementia).
When Lockhart first meets Pembroke, he has been tracking him through the spa’s labyrinthine steam room. He enters a room and finds that the exit has disappeared; impossibly, he’s now trapped inside four walls, filling up with steam. Turning in circles, he suddenly spies a doorway in one of the walls; a stag walks past it. He exits the chamber where he was trapped and finds the CEO sitting on a bench, sweating. Immediately, he forgets the eerie events of just a minute ago and starts interrogating his quarry about why he left the corporate boardroom. He doesn’t waste time asking why wild animals are roaming the halls; his experiences are immediately forgotten. That sort of thing suggests either sloppy screenwriting, or an “it’s all a dream” interpretation (a reading the script supports by repeatedly referring to a dreaming ballerina figurine crafted by Lockhart’s mom). If Wellness means to be a dream film like that more famous Surrealist institution down the road, The Hourglass Sanatorium, however, it shouldn’t take its silly conclusion so darn seriously.
It seems more likely that the script simply incorporates fuzzy possibilities of hallucinations into the story as a way to have its cake and eat it to. Fortunately, the cake is good–if, at two-and-a-half hours, there’s a little too much of it. Verbinski fixates on the eel as a horror image. They show up in the strangest places, and elicit delicious chills almost every time. The sanitarium is a winning setting, and slow camera pans through its off-white halls provide effective suspense. Also, I would advise not going to the dentist for at least a week after seeing this film. The whole thing may not add up to much, but the Cronenbergian intensity of individual scenes is undeniable. I was totally enthralled by Wellness for the first hour or so, before it’s structure began to crumble into repetitive noodling. But it’s rare to see this much money thrown at the screen to evoke such elaborate weirdness—so I would urge readers to get out and see it on the big screen during its sure-to-be-short run.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…about as weird as modern Hollywood movies get… Simply put, nothing stranger is likely to make it to multiplexes any time soon. Savor the oddness.”–A.A.Dowd, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)