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A Cure for Wellness

February 17, 2017
A Cure for Wellness

Oh boy, has this one split the film community. Gore Verbinski’s return after the awful Lone Ranger is a lush, gorgeous nightmare shot by Verbinski’s Ring cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli. At it’s core a retelling of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg by way of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the lurid and gory giallo elements seem to repulse more mainstream audiences. But to a fan of the genre, this is a fine modern entry, though it falls short in its more intellectual aspirations.

As in Mann’s novel, we follow a young man on a visit to a sanitarium in the Swiss alps. But Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is not visiting a beloved cousin; he’s an emissary from a rapacious multinational corporation sent by the board to retrieve their missing CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener). Initially turned away, he returns to the village below to report back, but on the way his car hits a deer and goes off the road. He wakes up with his leg in a cast, urged to relax and recover at the sanitarium along with the other patients, and of course to drink plenty of the water drawn from deep under the mountain.

Of course, the place is obviously creepy. Lockhart finds something microscopic wriggling in the water, echoing the maggots from Suspiria, and we know right away that we can’t trust head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs). The sensational rumors Lockhart hears about the place’s history will obviously tie into whatever’s going on now, but again this is par for the course in a giallo flick.

Still, it’s only natural to want this to be more of a mystery, and it seems like that would play better into the attempt to recreate Mann’s critique of modernism. Lockhart’s corporation provides an easy target, since we’re already trained to find companies like that amoral at best. What if the story played out more like The Stepford Wives? seemingly idyllic on the surface only to reveal a dark underbelly later, after it has begun to seduce the protagonist. But there is no seduction here; Lockhart hates the place from the get-go, and his interactions with the mysterious young resident Hannah (Mia Goth) serve less to draw him in than to steel his resolve to get her out along with Pembroke.

Justin Haythe’s script is also less than coherent in its translation of Mann’s critique. The idea survives that the modern, late-capitalist world has redefined “health” as a state of sickness and need in order to drive ever-greater engagement with a system that needs consumers to exist. It’s right in the title, after all. But by painting both Lockhart’s corporation — not to mention his childhood — and the sanitarium as grim and inhumane, it fails to make a clear point. It’s possible that Haythe and Verbinski want to go beyond Mann: to admit the failures of modernism but paint his criticism as a regressive non-solution. But even if that’s the case, the movie is too bogged down in squicky episodes to really make the point clearly.

Then again, the genius of Rango aside, deep ideas have never really been Verbinski’s strong suit as a filmmaker. Striking imagery has been, and A Cure for Wellness has that in spades. The movie never misses a chance to veer off into weirdness for its own sake. Someone has to be left too long in an isolation tank, so let’s make the attendant’s distraction as outré as possible. A plot point requires someone to have an unexpected menstrual period, but a cloud of blood in a swimming pool is so much more striking than a simple mark on her bedsheets.

It’s these wonderfully weird moments that make up for the movie’s conceptual shortcomings and its sometimes confusing plot, just as the spectacle of Dario Argento’s imagination made up for stories that would be laughable around a campfire. And Verbinski’s visual talent backed by Regency’s money can pull them off with production values that Spettacoli could only ever dream of.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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