With a dash of Polanski, a dollop of Universal, and a healthy helping of wild filmmaking, A Cure for Wellness offers a pièce de résistance for the gothically inclined. This film stands as a striking argument for film’s more intangible qualities: mood, subtext, style. But Wellness has narrative depths as well. And what’s more fun than holding your breath, rapt with eerie delight, unsure of what’s going to happen next in a darkened theater? Won’t you take a trip with Gore Verbinski? He might surprise you with his grim, excellent Cure.
Dane DeHaan is Lockhart, a pouty, hungry, nicotine gum-munching executive. He’s a prince of the yuppies, lusting for corner offices, salivating for a promotion through his charcoal suits and cunning eyes. Lockhart’s mathematically dodgy business proposals are his ticket to the top, and could bring fortune to his company. But Lockhart isn’t as sneaky as he thinks he is. His company’s board knows that his work is bunk, but they don’t want to lose out on the possibility of a massive merger because of trivial illegalities like some fudged numbers. So they strike a deal with the lad.
A hand-written letter is delivered from Pembroke (Harry Groener), the CEO of Lockhart’s unnamed company. Pembroke has clearly lost his mind, driveling about “sickness inside us like the bile in the back of our throats” and the need for a cure. Arthur Edens, eat your heart out. The deal is made: if Lockhart can bring the disturbed Pembroke back from his extended spa trip in the Alps, the company will make Pembroke their fall guy, and Lockhart keeps his shiny new position. The early part of the film is sketchy, cynical, and laced with gallows humor. Spa or prison? Of course Lockhart would do anything to save his hide.
From the very early moments, Verbinski visualizes the so-called civilized and corporate world as a grim and sinister place, day-to-day until you die. Lockhart works under gray skies, inside New York City’s black monolithic tributes to commerce. Verbinski nails the mood, with lusciously baroque lensing from journeyman DP Bojan Bazelli, and haunting lullabies sung from a single girl’s voice (composed by Hans Zimmer protégé Benjamin Wallfisch). Perhaps an ordinary life of pounding numbers and faking smiles until we die is not a way to live, and Verbinski entrances with his glumly vivid plea against these standards.
When Lockhart leaves the city, it’s almost a relief. What could possibly go wrong amid the lustrous mountain beauty of the Swiss Alps? Oh, so very much.
Verbinski delights in teasing and withholding information, drawing the audience into a wholly unnatural world. While the script does at times seem uncertain about the film’s internal logic and reality, the power of Verbinski’s imagery is undeniable. Bazelli’s detail-loaded and color-corrected photography yields a buffet for fans of well-staged horror: a reflected shot from the eye of a mounted deer here, a seemingly endless series of walls shot via Steadicam inside a steam room there. The film is a sight for tired eyes, and brings a needed touch of class to the genre at the studio level.
Bathe in the nervous, nonsensically long takes. Wince at the synchronicity and rigid behavior of the spa’s patients. The clientele constantly says that it’s about getting better, but any rational mind can see the spa as a test of one’s sanity. Of course it’s all wrong to Lockhart, but that doesn’t matter. He’s on a mission to find Pembroke and make the next redeye home. But on his way down from the hilltop, Lockhart’s car hits a deer, and the young upstart is left with a broken leg. The spa’s director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), insists that Lockhart have time to heal, and that Lockhart’s bosses are okay with him taking some time off (as all cutthroat superiors would be). And Lockhart is left to become obsessed with his own prognosis, and Pembroke’s as well.
Verbinski imagines the spa as a tan-teal bastardization of Wes Anderson’s pink and chipper Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s serene, quiet, and almost appealing. Restoration Hardware chic, lovingly rustic. Inoffensive yellow spa walls, and inviting baths and beds everywhere. Yet the affectless playing of croquet, the beautifully sun-soaked flecks of foliage – it’s all just a bit too left of center. What’s with the little burned-down castle in the middle of the main lawn? Why aren’t the villagers too keen on the spa’s ostentatious reputation? And why’s everyone so obsessed with the greatest of all precious bodily fluids, water?
Verbinksi and his co-writer Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger) stack aesthetically potent ideas atop what feels like a loose outline. It’s as if they sought to capture the first-person wandering of Myst or Bioshock (the latter a former Verbinski project) in a hospital setting, adding emphasis on the minutiae within every frame: iron lungs, metal tanks, little blue eyedroppers. This is a grand example of “puzzle cinema,” leading the viewer into intrigue and mystery with pit stops for startling views and strange revelations along the way. The fun is in the deceit, and in the escalating dread around what horrors may come. Just don’t call Wellness a “red herring” exercise; the little details pay off in various ways.
It’s also worth noting that Wellness has the nerve to go places that mainstream horror seldom dares. There’s disquieting nudity, an aversion to shadows in favor of inescapable light, and bodily harm that’s less gory than creative. Most impressively, the film takes its time, builds ambience, and experiments with fresh vantages on old themes like work and health. Verbinski earns the audience’s dread. Horror produced with this level of panache is so hard to find. And the film could be viewed as derivative – there are shades of Polanski staples like The Tenant’s surrealism, Rosemary’s Baby’s melodiousness, and Macbeth’s unsettling gaze, along with vintage Universal horror set design (and the deer fetish of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal). It’s all handled with great care by Verbinski and his production team.
Just go with Cure’s creepy flow, and it’ll provide answers come the end (perhaps so brazenly that they’ll offend the less rationally-minded viewer). But the finale feels like one in its scale, weight, and operatic grandeur. This is high-art horror, and Verbinski doesn’t let up. The specifically selected conclusions are delivered with such gusto and cinematic flair that Verbinski’s phantasmagoric visual storytelling overpowers the loose ends.
Coming off the financial bedlam of The Lone Ranger, perhaps Verbinski was looking for his own cinematic therapy, a far-fetched, expressionist work at a quarter of Ranger’s price. The director is a veteran of several expensive Disney productions. His initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy had to gross a billion dollars per film to break even for the studio, and you can still see Verbinski’s struggle to let loose in them. But A Cure for Wellness feels like a return to form for the director. It’s not hard to imagine how Verbinski might have come up with a baffling horror film about the pressures of work/health balance. His latest film is rich with invention, intrigue, and a mind-melting liveliness that’s impossible to ignore. A Cure for Wellness feels like Verbinski’s own cinematic antidote.