by Philip Price
Written by Just Haythe, who previously only adapted “Revolutionary Road” for the screen and served as one third of the team that composed ‘Lone Ranger’ among a few other jobs, “A Cure for Wellness” is a movie unlike those we typically get a chance to see in cinemas these days. This meaning Haythe has crafted a horror film of epic proportions that was somehow granted a budget of $40 million and placed in the hands of ‘Lone Ranger’ director Gore Verbinski who, despite the reputation the likes of “The Lone Ranger” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean” films may garner him, is one of the best and most underappreciated auteur's working today. That the film also got a major theatrical release without having the added bonus of a rather recognizable star is just another surprising facet in the fact this thing was able to be made as it has been. That said, Verbinski, for one reason or another seems to carry a lot of clout in Hollywood and if he can use it to continue getting high-concept original material made at budgets not normally given to properties without source material or brand recognition-more power to him. Outside of his blockbuster endeavors, Verbinski has made inspiring films such as “Rango” and “The Weather Man,” but what is most critical to understanding why he was the perfect fit for something like “A Cure for Wellness” is the mention of his 2002 hit, “The Ring.” It could very well be that my experience with seeing “The Ring” for the first time in theaters at a nine o'clock show at the age of 15 was one of the most terrifying if not the defining theatrical experience of my life when it comes to horror movies, but Verbinski (even his name sounds like he was made to make scary movies) will always hold a special place in my petrified heart. And so, when it was announced the filmmaker would be directing his first horror flick in 15 years you can bet it shot straight to the top of my most anticipated list. As with all movie-going experiences, expectations play a certain role and mine couldn't have been higher for “A Cure for Wellness,” which may or may not be why the finished film simultaneously floored and confounded me. To be clear, this is a staggering piece of work-a masterful examination of purpose and other existential qualms that drive us to achieve material success that translates to a superiority over our fellow man that is never fully qualified as such in this life. Yet, while the film begins with such ideas and ambitions ripe for the taking it eventually succumbs to the mystery the film layers in early on that will seemingly intertwine with its thesis, but rather the two never mesh leaving Haythe's final draft one we wished he'd revised just a few more times given he might have then had his hands on a masterpiece in several genres and not just a satisfactory psychological thriller.
“A Cure for Wellness” is the type of film that opens by showing us a man who is clearly something of a workaholic as he punches away at a computer long into the late hours of the night still dressed in business attire, who suffers a heart attack and dies right there at his desk. The point is that there is no point to the long hours and what accolades it may have brought. That ultimately, this man died alone and with nothing to show for his extended hours of work that genuinely mattered. In short, there was seemingly no one that cared about him-no one who cared to see him go or cared about what mark he might have left on the world he'd now left behind. This is all in an effort to highlight that our protagonist, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), is very much headed down the same path as he works incessantly and is irritated by everything the world throws at him that doesn't have to do with work. It isn't until later that we learn the man in the opening scene was a close acquaintance and trusted advisor to his and Lockhart's company CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), who has all of a sudden disappeared from civilization and apparently quarantined himself at a "wellness center" at the base of the Swiss Alps. Given Lockhart is a young and ambitious executive at this large financial services firm it is he who is tasked with going to Switzerland to retrieve the CEO after the board receives a troubling letter from their once fearless leader. Pembroke's presence is of the utmost importance due to the firm wanting to pin some unethical practices on their now deranged boss, but it seems Pembroke is determined to leave the stresses of the modern world behind and cleanse his mind of the toxicity of his professional dealings for good. And so, while Lockhart may be the least qualified to request an audience with Pembroke it is he who makes the trip under the strict limitation of a looming deadline to retrieve the man; this naturally proving more easily said than done. Upon arriving at the treatment center and spa it is immediately clear the place isn't ready to divulge the secrets it is so very clearly hiding, but this is no bother to Lockhart as he eventually, but not without a few hiccups and deliberate obstacles, is able to track down Pembroke and convince him to return to New York City with him. Upon leaving the site though, Lockhart sees both a mysterious figure he comes to know as Hannah (Mia Goth) who has a strangely close relationship with the center's director Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) before being involved in a rather horrendous car wreck that places the now crippled Lockhart at the mercy of Volmer and his staff.
What “A Cure for Wellness” lacks is focus. It is an over-long 146 minutes and thus it is able to explore many different ideas that only cross over to a certain degree, but never truly mesh in a way where each of the strands come together to culminate in a main idea or statement for which the full impact is felt. Rather, the film goes from feeling like a commentary on how we are to find meaning in this life while living in a world based solely around consumerism to a truly demented horror show in the films climax that elicits thoughts of a man who has been forced, over time, to confront his darkest secrets-the darkest of which may be the fact that he's been worshiping at the empty alter of his ambition when fooling himself to think such ambitions have a more selfless purpose than they ultimately do. It is easy to see how such ideas as the cost of success and blind ambition might cross over and deliver a bigger conclusion on what truly matters in life and/or the pointlessness of the entire endeavor, but for all the ideas and thoughts floating around in the movie’s head it doesn't seem to necessarily draw any conclusions or have anything to say about any certain one. The film starts by telling us that we're all sick-that we're all consumed and the first step to cleansing ourselves of this societal filth is to admit there's an issue. "Only when we know what ails us can we hope to find a cure." This allows the film its gateway into the world of the "wellness center" as it is pitched this is where people, particularly people with a lot of money, go in order to receive absolution for the wasted life they've lead and find peace in the serenity of trying to make up for past mistakes in the time they have left. This point of focus quickly shifts upon Lockhart's arrival to a story concerning the history of the castle in which the hospital now resides. More than continuing to dissect and analyze why we seemingly wish this disease upon ourselves only to then begin searching for a remedy or objective that might seemingly offer a cure Haythe's script begins to distract itself with this story of a Baron who was so obsessed with his family’s bloodline remaining pure that he married his sister who, in turn, was thought unable to have children until the townspeople rallied against the noble family and burned they and their house to the ground. This layering in of such a backstory gives the film a tone more in line with a mystery to be unraveled than that of a mentality as a condition to be explored and explained.
While the mystery can be intriguing it is also familiar. Like a collage of “Shutter Island” and an even more gothic take on “The Phantom of the Opera,” “A Cure for Wellness” becomes this tale of the past repeating itself through the tired structure of an outsider coming into a world they can tell isn't what it appears to be who become determined to uncover a corrupt system that purports to be working for nothing but the good of the people it claims to care for. The film very much becomes a film about, "the evil doctor trying to kill his patients," despite the film outright denouncing such simplicities. And maybe it is about more than that, maybe there is something to the overlap that occurs in the empty strides DeHaan's character takes to get ahead in his professional life by sacrificing a personal one and the story of the Baron who becomes so consumed by that aforementioned ambition he loses sight of the purpose behind that ambition, but it didn't come through upon first viewing. It didn't resonate in the way it seemingly should have-especially as it is accompanied by a haunting score from Benjamin Wallfisch, gorgeous cinematography from Bojan Bazelli, and stunning production design from Eve Stewart. With allegories in the shape of animals, MacGuffin's in the shape of water, and one thing or another having to do with the rotting of teeth out of each of the patients heads “A Cure for Wellness” might certainly do for the dentist what “Jaws” did for the beach and more over may in general do for spas what “The Shining” did for hotels, but the film has its hands in so many different pots to reach what is fundamentally a single point that none of it ever coalesces in ways that make clear sense, that feel like a huge reveal, or surprise with the impact it seems we should be left with. That said, seeing this world unfold and anticipating what might come next is what drives the intrigue that is consistent throughout the picture. The movie may go on for longer than necessary, but it always feels measured and assured-never does it feel scattered in those many avenues it is taking to get to the same destination, but rather Verbinski is always precise in his visions intent even if the ideas behind the narrative are messy. Couple this scale and the impressive visual treat the film undoubtedly is with a game performance from DeHaan, a deceptively innocent turn from Goth as Hannah, and a rather deliberate and restrained turn from Isaacs that peaks at a point I think all would agree we didn't see coming and “A Cure for Wellness” is as ambitious as its main characters that it wishes to denounce. It's only too bad the film didn't recognize its own schizophrenic tendencies and seek a cure before revealing itself to the world.