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Film Review: A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness (2016; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

What a tantalizing clutch of opportunities A Cure for Wellness decides to waste. This is a one-sentence summary verdict that could be applied to almost every movie Gore Verbinski has directed since he burst to prominence with the first (and still best) Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl (that “almost” qualifier is set aside for the consistently brilliant and subversive animated western Rango). What’s notable about A Cure for Wellness is how Verbinski – working from a story he co-wrote with Justin Haythe, who alone is credited for the screenplay – manages to squander his creation’s potential in entirely novel ways. After spending an act or two building up a creepy, unsettling gothic-horror atmosphere with intelligent care (he did direct The Ring, after all) and seeding a fast-flowering hybridized critique of capitalism and health and wellness culture, Verbinski closes his film with a lurid “twist” of rape-incest sensationalism and an operatic inferno-lit climactic battle between his protagonist and his hideous-visaged villain like something out of a second-rate Frankenstein flick.

What leads to that deflating compromise of a climax, though, is generally absorbing, often crisply and beautifully shot, and sometimes even inspired. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a rising young sales exec at a massive Wall Street finance firm whose board has eyes for a power-move merger/expansion but requires its missing CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), to both sign off on the deal and take the legal fall for certain accounting irregularities which Lockhart himself had a hand in. To stave off jail for himself, Lockhart is compelled to retrieve Pembroke from a remote mountaintop castle spa and “wellness center” high in the Swiss Alps (specifically inspired by the setting and thematic milieu of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a reference point that is typical of Verbinski’s highbrow artistic and intellectual influences).

Stymied in his haste to fetch Pembroke back to New York by the bureaucratic diffidence of the spa’s staff and then laid up in a patient room after breaking his leg in a spectacularly visceral car crash, Lockhart begins to learn more about the operation and its dark history. A medieval baronial castle, the whole structure was burned down two centuries prior by locals angered by the Baron, a pure-blood fanatic who renounced God, sought to marry his own sister (who was killed in the fire), and may have been performing gruesome experiments on the peasants for his own nefarious ends. One of the almost-uniformly elderly patients is an amateur historian (Celia Imrie) who suggests to Lockhart that these past horrors have a connection to the superficially-pleasant curative-waters institution run in the castle by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Lockhart meets and befriends the only other young patient, a budding teenage girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who is called a “special case” by her guardian Volmer, but he also begins to experience strange and disturbing visions of eels swarming in the aquifer waters, and encounters ever more nightmarish things as he ventures ever deeper into Volmer’s health centre.

I’m usually loath to specifically spoil any such thriller’s big plot twist, although A Cure for Wellness seems particularly keen to spoil itself by utterly telegraph its hardly-shocking turn. Verbinski leaves a trail of breadcrumb clues the size of wholes bread-loaves, and embeds persistent Freudian oedipal symbols and suggestions throughout his movie. Lockhart’s high-powered trader father committed suicide in front of him, while his mother crafts fragile feminine music-box ballerina figures in her retirement home, waiting to die; she does so, apparently simultaneously with Lockhart’s car crash (caused by a galloping stag, masculine-coded iconography which recurs in Volmer’s office and around the castle premises), and he dispassionately attends her cremation, although he is evidently unconscious for days after the crash (perhaps this is a flashback, but the editing is a bit vague on this point).

Elsewhere, in Hannah’s first two scenes with Lockhart, she is shot consistently mirrored in reflective pools, anticipating her mirroring relations to the Baroness’ horrible historical fate. A similar, even trippier doubled image immediately follows the title card, as Lockhart’s bridge-traversing train and its dualized reflection snap to unity as it careens into the black maw of a mountain tunnel (a callback to Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious sexual innuendo image at the close of North by Northwest, with similar penetrative implications in mind, doubtlessly). Most suggestive of all is a sequence of Lockhart’s post-crash hydration therapy at the spa, which sees him submerged in a metal tank as if a fetus in a womb, sperm-like eels swarming around him while his distracted minder self-pleasures to the sight of a nurse’s bare chest (in a later horror-movie moment, these sperm-eels gain ingress to Lockhart’s body via a tube thrust into his mouth, a disturbing quasi-fertilization).

One supposes, indeed one can be very nearly certain, that all of this Freudian imagery and psychological disquiet is intricately linked to Verbinski’s conception of ambitious capitalist striving as a virulent sickness that must be therapeutically purged. This is purportedly the purpose of Volmer’s alpine retreat and its hydrological treatments, to “cure” wealthy aged global plutocrats of the constricting stress and anxiety of grinding overwork that goes hand-in-hand with vaulting success in neoliberal capitalism (and that, in the film’s otherwise-uncontextualized opening scene, claims the life of the analyst whom Lockhart replaces at Pembroke’s firm, and whom the latter expected to be sent to retrieve him).

But the truth of Volmer’s centre is that it is the nexus of a final, self-serving system of corporeal consumption, literally processing patients into an elixir of life that fuels a multi-generational continuity of arcane incestual perversion. The ceaseless, frantic locomotion of the new world is thus chemically transmuted into the vital sustaining nutrients for the twisted, atrophying fantasies of the old world. The machine that carries out this process is, of course, a faded old-world relic, the alpine spa retreat where the unwell “take the waters”; an American member of the board of Lockhart’s employer scoffs at the continued existence of such facilities as inherently vestigial in its old-fashioned-ness. Volmer claims to “cure” the damaging assumptions of the hegemonic socioeconomic order at his time-capsule enclave, but he only leeches off of it to feed an undead evil that sleeps in its chest cavity and beats on like a tired old heart, pumping poisoned blood out to its twitching, reliant extremities.

A Cure for Wellness, sadly, never really rounds out this potentially deep and broad critique of capitalist elites and wellness culture (the latter is used very much as a mechanism for probing the former). In much the same way that the comprehensive critique of the colonialism of the Old West in The Lone Ranger (the huge-budget failure of which sent Verbinski scurrying off to Europe for backers of this production, which also flopped badly) became swallowed, partly digested, and ultimately neutralized by the Hollywood action-blockbuster monster and the historical assumptions of the Western genre, A Cure for Wellness loses its intellectual criticisms in grotesque horror-movie shocks (what function, really, is the dental-torture Marathon Man homage serving, for example?) and the generic trappings of the gothic thriller. It also drags on too long, and its frothy ending is particularly bad, a definite deflation that undoes nearly all of the exquisite arrangement of symbols and ideas that precedes it. I stated at the outset that Gore Verbinski manages to squander the potential of A Cure for Wellness in fresh ways, but perhaps its failure is unfortunately archetypal of the director’s work, of the particular manner in which his vision and ambition lead to a certain unwellness when manifested in genre-movie form.

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