by Megan Mulligan
Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“A cure for wellness” is supposed to make a person’s already-perfect life better or somehow worsen it for their benefit. The film led me to believe both.
A Cure For Wellness, directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring), is an “atmospheric” horror film that, despite a promising start, misses the mark and strays near fetish territory instead of aesthetically pleasing thrills.
The opening cinematography presents a gentle backdrop, as we learn the basics of the characters and the plot. Mr. Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan (A Place Beyond the Pines, Kill Your Darlings), is a young investment banker at a high-ranking firm who is forced, under threat of imprisonment, to travel to a resort in Switzerland and bring back a member of the board.
Accompanying the simple buildup are beautiful shots of Lockhart’s train travelling the Swiss Alps and long, fluorescently lit hallways in the resort/hospital. The most aesthetically pleasing shots occur in the first part of the movie and taper off once the more serious parts of the story begin.
Verbinski is known for leaving the most dramatic scenes for the end of his films, but, aside from the cinematography, this film has few redeeming qualities, making it a tough slog to the end. The underlying message is difficult to unpackage—and not in an exciting, experimental way.
The main antagonist, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (played by Jason Isaacs, who is best known for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series), is handsome and mild-mannered, and good at putting patients at ease. Volmer is reminiscent of Hap, the researcher and doctor Isaacs played in Netflix’s The OA, which bears a striking resemblance to Cure.
Volmer is searching for and administering a “cure” to his patients. There is, in fact, a “cure,” but calling it a “cure for wellness” is a matter of interpretation—both on the part of the patient and the viewer.
The patients, retired from the corporate world, feel they are being “cured” of the effects of working in a high-stress environment. Lockhart wonders if they are being scammed of their money, in the promise of the “healing water” the resort promotes.
As the film progresses, these “healing waters” are shown to have creatures lurking in them, living both underneath and throughout the facility. These turn out to be flesh-eating eels, whose reveal marks the point where the film drifts away from artistically frightening to an almost fetishist flick.
Whether most of the eels are real or hallucinations is up for interpretation, but for the most part they slip through scenes and Lockhart’s consciousness the same way that any deep messages of this film slipped through mine. They appear in both dramatic and frightening scenes as well as lustful wet-dream moments, serving little real purpose other than to be vaguely threatening and slightly symbolic.
On the whole, the film could have avoided its worst moments if it also ended at Lockhart’s lowest point, coming full circle and leaving the audience to wonder if someone in his company will be sent to retrieve him. Instead, Lockhart continues on his mission to discover the secret of the hospital.
At the crux of the mystery is a young girl, Hannah, played by Mia Goth (Nymphomaniac), whose parents allegedly left her at the hospital due to a trauma in her youth. Hannah is young and appears anemic, contrary to the other elderly, salt-of-the-Earth patients. Dr. Volmer has deep attachment and affection for this “special case,” which is not eased in any way by Hannah’s innocent, pre-pubescent appearance.
Most of the women who work at the hospital are young and lithe, but especially Hannah, and most of the male characters express an attraction to her—despite numerous plot points that argue that she is potentially still in her adolescence.
With this in mind, the film is not for the faint of heart, but not in the “good” way that a horror film should be. Aside from the queasy feeling the eels bring, there are scenes of torture and near-rape.
A Cure for Wellness has the potential to experiment with the horror genre, combining the elaborate scenery of Verbinski’s Pirates franchise with the psychological thrills of the horror genre. However, it loses itself, and its hopes of being the next great aesthetic-horror film in tropes and questionable plotlines.
Its opening is strong and shows a potentially artistic and experimental film, but it eventually plays into torture-porn tropes and borderline fetish displays for shock value before it finally ends, on a questionable and morally dubious note. Perhaps there was a cure for wellness all along, but the film offers far too much to decipher to ever actually get there.