A Cure for Wellness Review
Austere obsidian glass graphs of silver skyscrapers obscure the day at dusk as Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness” seeps into being. A salesman, a man named Morris (Craig Wroe), is working late at night, a lone figure amidst a landscape of empty office space and static screens. As he works, the man glances at a mysterious letter rubber-stamped, hand-written. He stops, suddenly, grasping at his chest in mild panic. A moment later, the man is taking a sip from the water fountain. Then, suddenly, Morris dies, knocking the water cooler on his way down. As the camera pans away, a panoply of screens showing identical financial market records shifts into center place. “A Cure for Wellness” appears in soft grey letters, hovering above the screens’ horizon and a single sliver of Morris’ steadily saturating body.
So “A Cure for Wellness” begins, with a man dead in a pool of, not his own blood, but of water. The film, an American and German co-production, features ambitious conceptual work by Verbinski (The Ring) and writer Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger), fantastic visuals by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli who worked with Verbinski on “The Ring,” and stellar performances by the cast’s central trio of Dane Dehann, Jason Isaacs and Mia Goth. Dehann (Kill Your Darlings) plays obdurate young executive Lockhart, sent to retrieve a senior executive from a treatment facility high in the Swiss Alps. Once there he encounters the unsettling Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and Hannah (Mia Goth), a fellow patient perpetually dressed with no shoes and a pale blue dress, described by Dr. Volmer as a “special case.”
A simple mission of retrieval unravels into a hellish nightmare as the narrative progresses and Lockhart finds himself drawn deeper into the subterranean labyrinth of Volmer’s institution. A catalytic freak accident leaves Lockhart stranded at the facility when a deer crashes into his driver’s car. There’s a moment of surreal havoc when the squealing head of the deer, still implanted in the car’s windshield, becomes the main focus point in a disorientating scene of crunched metal, broken glass and swirling bodies. Moments like these, of abrupt, dreamlike horror, populate the film’s runtime like strikes of visceral lightning amidst an uneasy and universal dismay prolonged by the music of Benjamin Wallfisch.
Early on, the film establishes its coupling of surreal humor and scathing moral sentiment. At a meeting with the financial executives Lockhart is asked out of the blue if he has ever been “railed by a 12-inch dick” in reference to the possible consequences of an impending investigation of the firm’s records. Pembroke, the executive whose letter Morris sees before his death, has absconded to the Swiss Alps with the intention of staying forever. The firm, hoping to bury iniquitous dealings, intends to frame Pembroke, whose letter provides a basis for accusations of mental corruption. Lockhart is warned that if Pembroke isn’t there to “take responsibility,” then all will fall.
At the institution, Lockhart encounters similar corrupt opacity in Dr. Volmer and the hospital staff. The treatment facility is famed for a cure found in its water. Patients, who are mostly elders with vast sums of wealth, receive regular treatments and resign from the world. A more curious patient, Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie) talks about the hospital’s past and the story of its founder, a baron who tried to impregnate his sister and had the villagers burn both his castle (later rebuilt) and sister. The writing quality here is uncertain, seemingly loss in the lies and truths of its subject matter. Central points of the narrative that catalyze conflict are cancelled out by secrets of the Baron’s story revealed later in the movie. But to continue with the progression of events the plotting is left unresolved and contradictory.
As the movie progresses, viewers follow Lockhart as he tries to solve the mysteries surrounding the institution and the Baron’s story. Dr. Volmer and Hannah become its chief inexplicables, adding to the film’s menace and mystique respectively. The film’s main strengths are represented by this ambiance, along with its creeping revelations and visuals that vacillate from profoundly disturbing to breathtakingly beautiful from scene to scene. Its weaknesses derive from superfluous scenes that hurt the film’s pacing and conflate its main ideas. What originally promises to be an exercise in dedicated style dissolves in the convoluted extra of the narrative’s storytelling.
“A Cure for Wellness” provides viewers with an oversized portion of a meal best served lean and simply. An initial intention gets lost somewhere in the middle of the film, concomitantly demoting the strengths of the film within the muddled confines of its increasingly shallow plot. Nevertheless, staying to the end lets viewers leave assured that the spectacle of the film’s visual technique never loosens.