A Cure For Wellness Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Rated R | 146 Minutes
Release Date: February 17, 2017
In Richard Fleischer’s 1973 dystopian sci-fi film Soylent Green, Charlton Heston plays an NYPD detective investigating the murder of a wealthy CEO. The investigation leads him to uncover the truth about Soylent Green, a food ration advertised to contain “high-energy plankton.” It turns out the miracle product is made of people. Human corpses are delivered to a disposal center where they are processed and converted into the very thing that keeps us alive.
If the big question behind Fleischer’s film is “What are we really eating?” then A Cure For Wellness asks, “What are we really taking?” From Gore Verbinski (The Ring, the Pirates of the Caribbean series), A Cure For Wellness is a mind-bending psychological thriller with exquisite but unsettling imagery.
Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) stars as Lockhart, an ambitious 31-year-old Wall Street stockbroker who is sent by his firm to the Volmer Institute, a remote rehabilitation center in the Swiss Alps. Lockhart is tasked with retrieving the company’s CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), a patient at the Alpine spa, who has told his staff that he has no intention of returning to New York.
Lockhart arrives at the tranquil spa where the patients are receiving a miracle cure. As he investigates the history of the Alpine retreat, Lockhart meets the young Hannah (Mia Goth, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II), a “special case” who has spent her entire life at the Institute under the supervision of its director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter‘s Lucius Malfoy).
The stockbroker begins to suspect that the spa’s miraculous treatments are not what they seem, but when he questions Volmer’s methods, Lockhart is diagnosed with the same condition as the other patients. Trapped inside the sanitarium, he begins to lose his grip on reality and has to endure inconceivable tests — sensory deprivation chambers, extreme dental work, swarms of writhing eels — during his “treatment.”
Inspired by Kubrick’s The Shining, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, A Cure For Wellness is built on a terrible truth that cannot stay buried — a secret that seeps into the protagonist’s psyche and drives them mad with paranoia. There’s a suspicion of medicine at the center of Justin Haythe‘s script, the idea that the pharmaceutical industry is preying upon us, and that we are willfully polluting our minds and bodies in a mythical quest for purity.
If suspicious medicine is the cure in this film, then ambition is the sickness. There’s an idea that, by giving ourselves over to selfish desires for wealth and advancement, we will never be satisfied. Volmer has stumbled upon the secret to happiness, and his life-saving “cure” is enticing to captains of industry and oligarchs — wealthy people to whom “winning” is everything. Of course, it’s all a big con — the cure is what’s making them sick. Why? I dare not say, because the answer is more bizarre than you could imagine.
A Cure for Wellness is easy to admire for its commitment to weirdness, delivering a bonkers blend of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and the BioShock series, with homages to Universal Monsters and Hammer Horror. Shot at Germany’s Hohenzollern Castle and lensed by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers), the film has a slick, sickly pallor dominated by a Lovecraftian color palette that evokes dried blood, gangrene, and jaundice.
It’s hard to talk about Verbinski’s latest film without spoiling its many twists and turns, but it’s quite the miracle that a horror movie this weird was released by a major studio in 2017. What holds it back from being great, however, is its meandering mystery that loses tension over the film’s 146-minute runtime. Of course, most of Verbinski’s films run long, with 2007’s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End clocking in at an unbelievable 168 minutes. That may work in a sprawling action-adventure film, but for a thriller, it’s really hard to sustain suspense for that amount of time.
There’s a moment in the movie where the story seems to take a break from itself, with Lockhart and Hannah taking a bike ride down to a village at the foothills of the Alps. They drink beer, dance to jukebox songs, and get in a fight with the local punk kids, only to be retrieved by Dr. Volmer and returned to the Institute. If the connective tissue of the mystery, the various clues Lockhart discovers while investigating the history of the institute, were streamlined in a shorter movie, A Cure For Wellness‘ ballsy ending would be even more satisfying, but it simply takes too long to get there, and gets lost in the haze of its own paranoid delusions.
With solid performances from DeHaan, Goth, and Isaacs, and some truly disturbing visuals, A Cure For Wellness is an interesting albeit overlong descent into madness that feels like one of Dr. Volmer’s bizarre treatments. As haunting, dreamlike imagery creeps across the screen and makes us squirm in our seats, the question becomes, “Who’s really the test subject here, Lockhart or the audience?”