The new thriller A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.
A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center. The company is in trouble, and in order to get through a complicated merger that will save it, they need their CEO, a man named Pembroke, who has declared that he has found life’s answers at this wellness center and will not return. The company disagrees and sends the ultra ambitious Lockhart to Switzerland to bring back his boss.
The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all. When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick. The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.
Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back. The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him. So, Lockhart leaves and decides to book a hotel room, but on his drive from the resort, he is involved in a car accident. When he awakes, he’s in a bed with a broken leg, and he finds himself as a patient at the spa. When he resists, Dr. Volmer tells him that he already cleared it with his company, that since his leg is broken, he might as well remain there in order to rest and heal.
Volmer advises Lockhart to drink plenty of water, because he says the climate there can dehydrate people, and the water there not only hydrates people but also possesses powerful purifying abilities.
During his stay, Lockhart learns a bit about the history of the castle, how a doctor conducted strange experiments there years ago, and how afterwards there was a catastrophic fire. Lockhart also befriends a mysterious young girl Hannah (Mia Goth) who, like him, is the only other young person being treated there. Lockhart eventually finds Pembroke and tries to convince him to leave, but his former boss isn’t interested.
Lockhart ultimately learns that no one leaves the spa, and as he begins to discover what really is going on there, things become far more horrific.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very creative thriller that I liked a lot.
It’s full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling. Chief amongst these images are the eels in the water. The water at the spa is advertised as being a natural purifier, but to Lockhart it tastes weird and he begins to see things in it, a glimpse here, a shadow there, and when he is inside a sensory deprivation tank, he becomes aware that he’s not alone, that there are eels swimming in the water with him. He begins to see them everywhere. Are they really there? Or are they just imagined, images caused by the breakdown he seems to be suffering from?
There are other images as well, odd ones involving deer, for example, and bizarre flashbacks involving Lockhart and his parents. The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller.
And with its weird imagery, it reminded me somewhat of THE NEON DEMON (2016), although I found THE NEON DEMON more disturbing. I also thought the story worked better in THE NEON DEMON. The twist in that movie I didn’t see coming, whereas here in A CURE FOR WELLNESS I did see it coming, and early on.
It’s directed by Gore Verbinski, the man who directed the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, as well as the American version of THE RING (2002), and also the awful THE LONE RANGER (2013). That’s a wide variety of movies. A CURE FOR WELLNESS might be his best movie yet.
It looks great, from all the weird images to the elegant photography of the castle spa in the Alps. It’s so convincing that at times I found myself wishing I could be there vacationing as well. And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it does take on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear. So, there’s a lot to like.
It’s pretty much a compelling mystery. The film throws enough things at the audience to keep them guessing, but the eventual reveal is one I definitely saw coming. Even so, I enjoyed the screenplay by Justin Haythe. It creates memorable characters, puts them in an ominous setting, and thrusts them into a truly horrifying tale of mystery and madness.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS is also interesting thematically. The idea that we are making our bodies sick from the stress of overworking, and that a spa could be the solution, resonates, because the need for a physical cure to our aging bodies is real, and so like the patients there, the audience easily buys into it.
And what is really going on with those eels is pretty horrifying. This part of the story really worked for me.
I also enjoyed the cast.
Dane DeHaan is very good here as Lockhart. At first I thought he was too young to be a corporate executive, but his performance grew on me, and he gets better as the movie goes along. Early on he doesn’t come off as a sympathetic character at all, but as the story moves forward, and we see everything that he goes through—and he goes through a lot in this movie—and how he handles it, he becomes more likeable. At times, he reminded me of Vincent Kartheiser who played Pete Campbell on the TV series MAD MEN.
DeHaan is a fine young actor. Unfortunately, he got stuck playing the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the awful THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014), but he was memorable before that in the very good science fiction flick CHRONICLE (2012).
I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer. Isaacs strikes the perfect balance with the character. You don’t trust the guy, but he keeps coming back, speaking in level-headed and reassuring tones that he’s really there to help, and each time Lockhart believes him, and the audience does as well. His performance reminded me of Timothy Dalton. I could have easily seen Dalton playing this role.
Even better than both DeHaan and Isaacs is Mia Goth as Hannah. She makes Hannah such an innocent and awkward character, she’s mesmerizing to watch. There’s a scene where Lockhart and Hannah escape to a local pub, and Hannah plays a song on a jukebox and starts dancing in front of the local youths. It’s a mesmerizing moment as we see this confused and misunderstood youth begin to express herself through movement. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie. Goth nails the sequence.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS is not perfect. It does go on a bit too long. The film runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes, which was about 20 minutes too long.
Not everything in the movie makes sense. There’s a couple of scenes with Lockhart and his mother which I’m not sure I understood, as at one point it’s shown that she is dead yet in another scene she’s speaking to him about his trip to the spa. Also, there’s a confusing scene near the end where all the patients have a rather strange reaction to Lockhart’s words.
Plus the main story, in spite of all the imaginative imagery, is pretty straightforward.
All in all, though, I really liked A CURE FOR WELLNESS. It’s an interesting hybrid of artistic cinema and straightforward horror, and it makes for a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.