On shades of green, naughty eels, and the betrayal of our greatest natural resource
A Cure for Wellness 20th Century Fox
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Justin Haythe
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Nandi, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Magnus Krepper and Adrian Schiller
Rated R / 2 hours, 26 minutes / 1.66:1
February 17, 2017
(out of four)
He should've known this was no place for healing. It was written all over the walls, painted on the furniture, hovering through the thin mountain air. It's that persistent, disquieting green that greets him uneasily upon his arrival, that floods his line of sight in every direction, that warns him in every hallway yet embraces him in every pool and pond - a patina coating the entire grounds in a muted sickness, a falsely soothing varnish hiding the corrosion underneath. The minty interior walls, the murky waters ... even his eyes are that same green. Were they always this way?
This was supposed to be a simple retrieval. Hop a flight to Europe, arrive in a peaceful corner of Austria, head up the road to a mysteriously prestigious medical institute at the top of the mountain, and touch base with an old co-worker who's desperately needed back at corporate headquarters. But for Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a rising young hotshot at a multinational finance firm, this task takes on one complication after another. Caught in the hypnotic, withholding gaze of the Volmer Institute and the comforting Swiss Alps setting that envelops it, he underestimates his circumstances from the very beginning. Glib arrogance will do that to a person. He knows he will not be staying long, but he will. He knows that he is the picture of health, but he is not. He knows what his purpose in this place is, except he doesn't. It rarely crosses his mind that the man he's after - Pembroke (Harry Groener), who recently penned a mysterious letter of quasi-resignation and outright warning to his fellow board members - not only doesn't want to leave, but is effectively incapable of doing so. Regardless of the institute's claims that all of its patients are "voluntary."
But hey, this is, after all, a lovely spot in the middle of the Alps. What could go wrong. And what was that old story about those experiments done by the lunatic baron on these very grounds two centuries earlier? Oh nevermind, it's probably nothing.
Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness operates on its own nebulous wavelength; its axis is the hospital itself - which hovers like a citadel above the small village over which it holds tacit dominion - but it extends far beyond, even to the Manhattan high-rises where Lockhart's ill-fated journey begins. It is the sickness spoken of in Pembroke's letter, the existential decay that has brought the mighty and powerful from corporations all over the world to these tranquil grounds, seduced by the promise of spiritual renewal. Verbinski gets so much of this across through his color choices alone, primarily the patina (and other similar shades) that drenches his images, as if both his sets and his lenses have been left out to tarnish in the elements like so many bronze statues. The one shock of intense color we get - shiny blue vials containing some sort of medicinal fluid, worn around the neck of various patients and even doctors - is almost ghastly in the midst of all the other washed-out hues. It's the one component of the frame that seems overtly anachronistic, like a rare sapphire in the middle of a desert.
It can also be construed as a cruel joke, a clear, crisp, blue reminder of water - the institute's very calling card. The mythical secret to its (supposed) success. That cool, fresh mountain water and the healing properties it promises. Try our water, that's the cure. Eight glasses a day, please. Nevermind the eels.
The aged quality of the film's palette has a potent psychological effect on its own, but it's just as useful from a narrative standpoint, given how much the legendary history (or, historical legend) of this concealed, mythic location still plays into its collective psychology. The patients at the facility pass storybook rumors about it, centuries after the fact. (The baron. The castle. The scandal. The fire.) The villagers seem resistant to talk about it. Even the head of the institute, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), offers his take on those myths with a sort of bemused respect.
It occurred to me during the film that most movies taking place at a sinister secret hospital - at least as far as I know or can recall - primarily involve the mind. Sanatoriums, psychiatric wards. While the mind is certainly not irrelevant in Wellness, the body is the key. The mind simply follows. Indeed, the mind's main use seems to be as leverage. The doctors ... OK, let's just call them what they are, the evil doctors are only concerned with the bodies of their patients, but instruct and behave as though mental health is the key. It's a cloak of perpetual distraction. Feeling ill? Psychosomatic. You saw what? No such thing. You're ready to go home? We better put you under further observation. A Mengele clinic with a gaslighting twist. Turns out those sensory deprivation tanks aren't for neurological purposes after all.
Of course it always comes back to water. Here - in this film, at this institute - it's the body's great betrayal. The very source of life commandeered and repurposed. The patients' very sustenance poisoned against them. Deprivation indeed. The film is, among other things, a savagely fascinating examination of the human body - in sickness and in health ... but especially the former. Verbinski has a way of suggestively separating the body from outside influences and exterior forces that would normally act upon it. His characters float. They glide through water and sink into air. Sometimes it's in one of those tanks, sometimes it's merely in reflection - like the way an odd young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth, in a disruptively great performance that balances youthful, innocent reluctance with deliberately strange sexual energy) so often appears. Her image doubled, reflected into crystal-clear waters as she walks along the stone rim of a pond. Or caught at a reflected glance by Lockhart as he drives away, her distant shape warping around the curves of his limousine window. Or floating angelically in liquid space - sheer white dress, slowly twisting with the current - in one of the film's most memorably dreamlike images.
Verbinski's film turns characters into bodies, and bodies into figures. His reflective surfaces distort them, his colors drain them; they are reduced to something hauntingly elemental.
A Cure for Wellness is, at various times, silly, and messy, and its tone - so important to the film's overall impact - drifts off now and again, only to return with a vengeance. The movie's flaws are more interesting than the greatest strengths of most big-budget studio films. I make that comparison only because Verbinski remains one of the few 21st Century directors that can make true and personal advantage of big genre canvases and big studio money. His latest reminds me, in a broad sense, of Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak - a sexual Gothic mood piece that brought the violent horror goods when it needed to. As wide releases go, Wellness is even stranger - but Verbinski brings it, both in his soothingly diseased vision of existential malaise and in the twisted, pulpy horror story that lurks underneath and eventually erupts.
We're told that the Volmer Institute was built on the ruins of an ancient castle, and even the modern structure looks like one - especially from a distance. A grand symbol of royalty, its spires catching every ray of morning light, its physical being (indeed, its very power) enshrouded in, and preserved by, an ethereal mist. It is the perfect setting - quaintly grandiose yet foreboding - for what amounts to a charmingly demented fairy tale, and a brutal rendering of what secrets our bodies have to offer.