Overview: A young corporate executive grows suspicious of the Swiss Alps treatment facility to which he has been sent to retrieve his company’s CEO. 20th Century Fox; 2017; Rated R; 146 Minutes.
A Composition: The minute that Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) steps onto the grounds of the strange treatment center sitting atop a Swiss mountain, his clock and his cell phone both stop working. He becomes completely unplugged, not just electronically, but seemingly from time and space. There’s an immediate sense that the setting of Gore Verbinski’s newest and perhaps weirdest film is within a psychological whirlpool, its event chronology and place less important than its elemental tellers. This is a story told of its own composition.
Director Gaspar Noé famously hid a low-frequency noise beneath the Thomas Bangalter score in his most disturbing scenes in Irreversible, sounds meant to induce nausea within the viewer. Verbinski recalls that ambition here, but using more subtle sound design. There’s squeamish noise in every scene of A Cure For Wellness, even where it doesn’t fit the events, and it grows less faint as the movie pushes forward. From moment to moment, there’s a phantom rhythm underneath, the sound of distorted human breath, working intestines, blood flow, eels slithering around one another through jangling pipes, as if the castle which hosts the experimental treatment facility has its own ill pulse. Long-time Verbinski collaborator Bojan Bazelli captures both the architecture atop the mountain and its winding entry road in ways that defy mapping and geometrical logic.
What we get as the audience, when we appreciate the elemental wholeness, is a terrifying cinematic treatise regarding health as an impossible concept wrapped into a traditional Gothic mystery/dark fairy tale. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. The patchwork here is so precise that it’s hard, and perhaps unnecessary, to distinguish.
A Mosaic: But the patching doesn’t stop at the film technique. Gore Verbinski is a director who knows how to make films because he is a fan of film. That is very evident here. At least at one point during A Cure for Wellness, you’ll say to yourself “I’ve seen this before.” That sense of familiarity might be triggered by memories of Polanski’s eeriest work of psychological disrepair or Cronenberg’s most brutal body horror. You might be more explicit. Perhaps the patients at the treatment facility might directly recall Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. It could be that for a moment in the middle, you confuse Lockhart’s struggle-with-sanity-during-investigation with that of Teddy Daniels in Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Or maybe you’ll vaguely recognize the obsessive, incestuous romance or the pale skinned, naively innocent heroine, Hannah (Mia Goth), as being lifted from Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (or any of the classic goth films to which del Toro’s work owes a debt). Or perhaps it will click when you realize that one of the film’s most torturous moments, a scene in which Lockhart is strapped against his will in a dentist chair, is a one-up attempt on the famously excruciating scene in Schlesinger’s Marathon Man.
Between the application of his tools and his indebtedness to his influences admitted brazenly every second, Verbinski builds a lot of cinematic architecture for a single movie. That means there’s also a lot of space within for him to get lost. While there are probably more successful moments than not, moments which feel almost orchestral in emulation, there are other times when instead it all starts to feel like an unwelcome third encore from a really talented cover band. This sort of heavy-stepping ungracefulness is most noticeable in a third act which waltzes numbly past a half-dozen lesser endings as they are set on fire so that it might arrive at what I think would have been the perfect singular ending for the film.
Sickness/Wellness: Early on, one of the voluntary patients at the facility is working on a crossword puzzle and seeks help deciphering a clue. Lockhart gives her the answer. The word she is looking for is “absolution.” Really, all of the patients at the facility are looking for absolution. Wellness and sickness are indistinguishable by the end of the film, the words used within the facility with such a hypnotic repetition that they become impossible to separate from one another. The corporate bookends of the film, the opening and closing overseen by Lockhart’s company and its board, would suggest that the “sickness” is that of a stressful and empty life of professional ambition (the first thing we see in the film is a salesman die of a heart attack before the camera pans to a plaque to reveal he’s the company’s top salesman). But the treatment facility provides a sort of dehumanized wellness, a zombie-like serenity that strips away agency, personality, and thought. The facility’s dark history, much like the title of the film, suggests that wellness itself is a flawed concept, that constant wellness is a form of disease. One way or another, everyone is or will be unwell, and perhaps they can at least be offered absolution of the blame for their mind and body’s failure.
It may seem strange to some that the two worlds never directly intersect. The mysteries of Lockhart’s company, his father’s suicide, and the connection between the two are never solved or even addressed by the meatier narrative’s solving of the treatment facility’s mystery. In the final scene, these two components, each representing its own form of unwellness, pull close together but leave just enough room for two survivors to slip between in a shotgun bike ride, closing with a shot of a character smiling for the first time, an expression somewhere between joyful and maniacal, suggesting that the best we can do is escape through the thin spaces between sickness and wellness whenever the chance is provided to us.
Overall: A Cure For Wellness is a somehow radical work of studied technique and overly familiar influence, a strange mosaic of elements and homage that is perhaps more admirable than enjoyable.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox