Gore Verbinski has spent the better part of the past fifteen years making enormous studio tentpoles, and even if you respond to the insanity of his Pirates of the Caribbean films or the cultural subversion in The Lone Ranger as strongly as his more ardent admirers (count me deep in the Pirates crowd and a skeptical guest of the Ranger bunch), it’s not hard to see the bundled creative force dying to fully break free of Disney’s chains. A slight outlet in Rango provided such an opening, but I would submit that A Cure for Wellness – more comfortably though it fits in a genre mode – is the true cry of an artist yearning for, and finally finding, that freedom. It’s explicitly about becoming brainwashed by a domineering, eternal life force that drains you of your individuality and briefly convinces you that maybe that’s not so bad. Like so much Verbinski, it’s grotesque and overlong, casually indulgent in its weirdest aspects and a little overheated when it needs to be graceful. But it’s creepy, incisive, gorgeous, nightmarishly imaginative, and a potent reminder that we’re always dying.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a young executive at a financial firm that does shady finance things (it constantly amazes me how directors in the big studio game learn nothing about business while they’re there). He’s a go-getter, but he’s pulled some moves that the government might find illegal were they to find them at all. So his company blackmails him to take a trip to the Swiss Alps, where their CEO has disappeared at a renowned “wellness center” that – per his recent last letter – appears to have driven him insane. They need Mr. Pembroke (Harry Groener) back to finalize a Big Deal or the company’s going to fold (seriously, Gore, just hire a consultant or something to fill this out).
But wouldn’t you know it, there’s something a little “off” about this feel-good medicine house and its standoffish director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Its aged residents can’t seem to keep track of their treatment sessions (or, increasingly, their teeth), and the facility has a reputation as a place to which many people go, but few return. Before long, Lockhart finds himself with a broken leg and a missing Pembroke, more or less stranding him in the Alps. And, hey, while you’re here, why not sign up for our treatment?
So yeah, right away, the film asks you to swallow some implausibility. The spa has apparently been attracting rich, powerful people and disappearing them for hundreds of years, yet Pembroke is the first one anyone’s missed? I realize heirs can be greedy little buggers, but surely one or two actually love their grandfathers. And how does such a place garner such a renowned reputation anyway? And why the hell would Lockhart sign up for it, even if he is trapped there? The mind reels. But this is all sort of besides the point, and it’s fairly straightforward about that. Besides the sort of off-kilter, Overlook Hotel feel of the performances, one early scene has Lockhart wandering an unending, ever-changing labyrinth of steam rooms. Its own cure to these pernicious questions is the all-excusing “nightmare logic.” It is so because that is what is most unnerving.
I will say, unless one has a particular fear of eels, this is not an especially scary film, but Verbinski (who concocted the story with screenwriter Justin Haythe) has a keen sense for the way very slight intrusions can gradually become overbearing. As jiggling toilet handles and creaking wheelbarrows and ever-fully water glasses mount, tension comes with them. Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli are captivated by the particulars of bodies – the way DeHaan’s shoulder blades contract and retract as he hobbles around on crutches, the thinness of the ghostlike Mia Goth (seemingly the hospital’s only young resident), the nearly-skeletal nature of the hospital’s staff (and a completely unerotic sexual encounter between two of them). The more we look at the elderly patrons, the less their bodies seem able to support them. This serves a plot purpose that I won’t give away, but its more immediate and lasting effect is the reminder of how fragile our lives are, and how much relies on these organisms we’re trapped in and largely don’t really understand.
And that’s the real terror at the center of the film – that our bodies are failing us all the time and except for the help of medical professionals, we’re completely unequipped to deal with that. It would be a crime to give away the eventual twist, predictable though it becomes before it finally sets in, but it brings all this around thrillingly. One need not be totally blindsided by a reveal to revel in its execution, particularly when it is as theatrical and wild as the climax Verbinski stages. Finally, Verbinski the creative force, the movie madman, is unleashed, barrelling towards the unknown, unencumbered by his many demands. The lunatics aren’t running the asylum; they don’t even need the house.