Lockhart (Dane De Haan, some kind of more neurotic Leonardo Di Caprio with a hint ofa young Tom Hanks) is an up and coming executive working for an unnamed financial services company. To finalize a merger with another company, CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) is needed to sign the deal off, but Pembroke checked into a remote Swiss wellness center weeks ago and never returned, only proof of life is a letter hinting at the possibility that he might have lost his mind. The Board members assign Lockhart to retrieve Pembroke and return him to NY, which turns out to be a more difficult task than assumed, as the staff members of the spa, led by the enigmatic chief physician Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) are reluctant to cooperate. Things get even more complicated when Lockhart himself becomes a patient of the resort after breaking his leg in an accident. What is the secret of the castle the spa is located in and the supposedly rejuvenating water that is extensively used in the oddly old-fashioned treatments? And what significance has the mysterious, assumedly developmentally challenged “special patient” Hannah (Mia Goth) for unravelling the mystery?
There is something in the water…
Recently, smart film makers seem to have recognized that, if TV has now become the preferred medium for straightforward storytelling, cinema must become the place for a different kind of narrative, one rather driven by associations, references and strong visuals than by plain plotting. Tom Ford’s brilliant Nocturnal Animals is such a movie, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon -although I am a little torn on this one- also falls into this category and now Gore Verbinski contributed to this new wave of weirdness with A Cure for Wellness.
Those are three very different works of course, but they all share the same traits, which are a quirky approach to storytelling, a reliance on extravagant visuals and a clever, inspired as well as inspiring use of references far from the typical dull and smug nostalgia-milking. Another characteristic is that it’s hard to pin down the exact genre the movie is placed in, with the story abruptly jumping or effortlessly flowing from one to the next.
A Cure for Wellness starts out as what could have been a typical Shyamalan effort, a slowly paced mystery, heavy with symbolism and subtext, down to the hero who is still labouring on a past trauma. But soon, a taste of classic Italo-horror seeps in. Ballerina figurines used as visual red thread are the first hint at a Dario Argento influence and not since the Italian master’s heyday the Alps have been captured on film in such a lushly ominous fashion. Later, subtle notes of Cronenbergian body horror come into play till it delves into full-blown Mario Bava- inspired Gothic Horror in the last act. Vague memories of Crimson Rivers and Death Becomes Her are conjured as well, but despite all references it never feels like a tedious in-joke for fans, but playfully juggles a certain earnestness and a gentle sense of irony.
There is a satirical subtext about the alternative medicine industry busily creating new fictional ailments to drain (sic!) people of their hard earned money. In the end, this business is not much different from the monolithic company Lockhart works for, ruthlessly robbing money from those who ruthlessly robbed money from others, in an ironic/poetic twist of justice. As someone who is a strong opponent of Social Darwinism, this filled me with delight. What you take from this is your own choice though, this movie is not necessarily centred around a message, but mainly intends to be enjoyed as an amusing, thrilling and sensually stimulating ride, not afraid to get silly if necessary.
Verbinski has never been shy when it comes to lush visuals and he already proved with his version of Ring that he has a good grasp of the mechanics of the horror genre. It’s nice to see that this capable director could finally escape the clutches of the unbearable Jerry Bruckheimer to realize more ambitious projects than CGI-heavy Johnny Depp vehicles. All cast members bring their A-game, particularly Mia Goth might be someone to keep an eye on.
A Cure for Wellness might not be to everyone’s taste, which is sadly reflected in the disastrous BO-results. I still strongly recommend it though. Don’t believe the RT-score and treat yourself to this bizarre little gem, there are not enough of those out there.