Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Ivo Nadi, Celia Imrie, Mia Goth. USA/Germany. 2h 26m.
Gore Verbinski’s hellish story of entrapment in a world filled with mysteries and a strange folklore is full of disturbing quirks, but not enough to really step the film into the realms of greatness but instead it just comes off as a bit weird. The plot follows a young executive, Lockhart (DeHaan) who, after a misdemeanor at his firm, is sent to retrieve the company’s CEO, who is currently staying in a rehabilitation centre in the Swiss Alps. During this trip there’s hints of a sinister chapter from his childhood that still influences his life, but once he enters the secluded grounds of the wellness centre a dark fairytale atmosphere begins to take over.
Written by Ira Levin who gave us such classics like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Stepford Wives (1975) and, The Boys from Brazil (1978), but the biggest influence on the story is Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain (German: Der Zauberberg) . A book which does feature in the movie, those with a keen eye may spot it, is already considered to be one of the most influential works of twentieth-century and centres on a man unravelling a complex story from the backstories of key characters that he meets in a similar spar in the Alps. The war that’s faced in the novel is a World War, whereas Lockhart’s war is initially within him.
Everything within the Wellness Centre (aka castle Hohenzollern), is a play on words, the therapy is based on drinking the local water which comes from a giant well on the property. The Spa and surrounding town look absolutely gorgeous, it’s all very picturesque Heimat. Long corridors within a mysterious maze like asylum, beautiful scenery, a quaint village, a sort of hive mind collection of staff and a creepy doctor (Isaacs) who plays the part of some kind of new age Frankenstein. Having this overbearing narrative of things falling into and out of the subconscious the sky should have been the limit, imagine what Lynch would have done with this playground.
Lockhart just wants to speak with his CEO, he needs to convince him to return to save the company from Lockharts greedy mistakes. Each step of the way he notices a strange girl walking around the premise, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get any closer to finding the CEO and soon through a terrible accident he ends up as a “resident” with a broken leg, supposedly staying until he heals but like the unfortunate Saywer in Unsane (2018).He’s systematically tricked into the system and can’t easily escape, the arguments for him to stay are just so good.
There’s no real formula to the movie, apart from every two steps that Lockhart makes forwards, he’s soon sent reeling back, mentally and physically he’s slowly disabled and broken down, his wounds start to add up from a broken leg, a missing tooth, a fear of water all begin to take their toll. He attempts to carry on his investigation while going for random therapies, all involving the healing waters and unnervingly a water supply that seems to contain some menacing species of eels, yep just like the ones you’ve seen all over the adverts.
Unfortunately it’s an incredibly long wait for the film’s utterly bizarre finale, the gothic psychology can be absorbing at times, the hospital itself opens up like a maze, at times dead ends but when the director allows it; it feels like it goes on forever. Possibly it’s a victim of style over substance in an an epically long movie or maybe there was some pressure to rewrite but there’s possibly too much of the movie that just doesn’t go anywhere.
Do you know what the sure for the human condition is? Disease. Because that’s the only way one could hope for a cure.
Lockhart is insufferable at first because he’s supposed to be. There’s a sense in which he deserves the miseries inflicted upon him because he’s a snotty capitalist swine who would otherwise grow up to be another Ebenezer Scrooge, and he’s representing a system that produces Scrooges by the millions. Once the system of money is taken out of his control, Lockhart suddenly becomes a caring individual, a man who doesn’t think about himself, and ultimately he’s a man stepping away from the rat race and finding himself, just in the most painful and confusing way possible.
What’s most conspicuously absent here is Kubrick’s dynamism, or any hint of a naughty sense of humor. “A Cure for Wellness” aims for black comedy often, but rarely manages anything more sophisticated than the sick joke comic rhythm of, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character?” followed by, “Here it comes.” Lockhart’s suffering grows dull through repetition. He keeps brushing up against the same realizations, onto being lied to or misdirected and finding himself back where he started. Too much of this sort of thing and even patient viewers throw their hands up and moan, “Oh, come on.”
Some dedicated audiences will stick with the movie until the very end, , where the fairytale tropes come into play: princesses, evil step parents, the clinic begins to look more and more like a castle and there are people in robes performing a strange ritual. With all the eels references I was expecting something with tentacles to be behind the mayhem, some crazy folk horror entity maybe but it’s a fanciful let down. But even though I felt a little cheated, I can’t deny that there’s lots of heavy doses of visually splendid, wonderfully foreboding but convoluted screenplay, the huge industrial underground of the facility is incredibly diesel punk and everything else is Hans Christian Anderson.
It seems to me this movie is often mis-categorised. Clearly it was advertised as a horror but I think if it’s seen through the guise of a thrilling fairy tale then the criticisms wouldn’t be so harsh?