A Cure for Wellness is a deliciously wild and twisted psychological horror thriller that works on several levels.
The Spa on the Hill
Writer/director Gore Verbinski doesn’t settle for making just a movie. He makes an experience. The top-shelf directors all have some sort of film signature — think about the directors who can be referenced by their last name alone, such as Spielberg, Scorsese, Burton, Stone, Coppola, Nolan. Verbinski’s signature is a layered approach to storytelling, piling on themes and ideas, all wrapped up with too many visual tricks to count.
And his movies tend to be on the long side. A Cure for Wellness clocks in at 146 minutes. Verbinski’s catalog includes The Ring, the Elizabeth Swann trilogy of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Rango and the somewhat notorious (and ultimately underrated) reboot of The Lone Ranger back in 2013.
Here, Verbinski is in a playful mood amidst the story’s dark themes. The assembly of visual flair, by way of cinematographer and frequent Verbinski collaborator Bojan Bazelli (The Lone Ranger, The Ring) is terrific as the screen is packed with information from corner to corner. It’s all in service to a multi-layered story about a strange health spa in Switzerland.
I’m Feeling Better Now
After entering the spa, a high-powered CEO at a financial services firm in New York City writes a letter to the firm’s board letting them know of his changed outlook on life. He’s feeling better now and he’s comfortable staying at the spa.
It falls on an up-and-comer named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, Kill Your Darlings) to fly out to Switzerland, pick up the CEO and get right back to New York City so he can sign off on paperwork closing out a blockbuster deal.
Lockhart draws the short straw because the Board has some dirt on his dealings and the guy who was originally pegged for the mission — the firm’s most recent Salesman of the Year — died of a heart attack while working late one night in the otherwise empty office.
People enter the spa, called the Volmer Institute, and never leave. Why? Is it because they love it there? Are they really feeling better because of the spa’s treatments? There’s also peace and tranquility on the grounds; no cellular service is available and that’s by design — to help the decidedly older clientele distance themselves from their work.
Cabinet of Curiosities
As the story unfolds, it plays out as part ghost story, part social commentary and part thriller, all culminating in a morbid conclusion that’s a bit of a salute to the old Hammer horror movies. It’s an off-kilter story of satire, corporate intrigue, ghosts, science, eels, kitsch and zombies.
The visual trickery is fun to watch and it’s fun to piece together the puzzle. The story’s hand is revealed a bit too early when a simple three-word line is uttered to Lockhart, and it’s Lockhart who ultimately serves as the sanity check in the asylum.
Among the more notable observations offered up is the questioning of accomplishments. Great people achieve great things, but at what price? The patients at the Volmer Institute have made a lot happen and accumulated enormous amounts of wealth, but they have nobody who cares about them.
There’s a sickness inside us, the movie posits. That’s a notion that resonates with Lockhart; his father committed suicide. What is the proper work/life balance? And when it comes to mental illness, is Lockhart ill or is the problem with everyone around him? Can society and individuality truly coexist?
In this cabinet of curiosities and questions, Lockhart’s a tortured voice of reason, a sort of Sam Lowry in what at times feels like a Brazil for the new millennium.