A thick air of foreboding hangs over the mind-bending psychological thriller A Cure for Wellness like a seemingly never-ending blanket of fog. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider Man 2) stars as Lockhart, a driven Wall Street stockbroker who is sent by his firm to a remote alpine medical spa. His mission is to retrieve the firm’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), a sanitarium patient who has told his staff he has no intention of returning to New York.
This place in Switzerland is where the residents are supposedly receiving a miracle cure, but the reality is that they just seem to be getting sicker. As Lockhart investigates, he meets a young woman, the hauntingly beautiful Hannah (Mia Goth), herself a patient. He also gets to know another resident, the eccentric Mrs. Watkins (Celia Imrie), who has done some of her own detective work. Soon, the institution’s director – the ominous Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) –diagnoses Lockhart with the same condition as the other patients and Lockhart finds himself trapped. He begins to lose his grip on reality and has to endure unimaginable ordeals during the course of his “treatment”.
Atmospheric, A Cure for Wellness explores the meaning of the term and the trappings of avarice and power. Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) wanted to make a thriller with the depth, insight and power of classics in the genre that he admired. I am talking about the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. The idea of a quick fix, together with society’s malaise and the obsession with perfect health were topics that intrigued Verbinski. “We started exploring the notion of a health spa in the alps, a wellness centre that doesn’t actually make you well,” says Verbinski, “and it slowly evolved from there.
Verbinski sat down with screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), who had an idea bouncing around in his head that “mostly came from a suspicion of medicine”. Haythe was inspired by the work of German writer Thomas Mann and by psychiatrist Carl Jung. “The film really concerns the pollution of our minds and bodies in the modern world and our obsession with purity as a result of that.”
So, this so-called nirvana high in the Swiss Alps hides dark and dangerous secrets … the stuff of nightmares. Verbinksi has woven a tale of horror, mystery and intrigue. The longer the movie goes, the more we’re left with the impression that from this so-called fountain of youth there is no coming back. The imagery, in the midst of intense natural beauty, is creepy. Slithering eels – dastardly, deadly creatures – populate the life affirming aqua in these parts. Age-old glass jars carry an assortment of human oddities, reminiscent of Nazi experimentation. The seriously warped back-story of how this sanitarium got its start is delivered early by a limousine driver as he transports Lockhart up a narrow winding road to the castle where the spa is located. In this place, it is clear before too long that the past and present have melded into one for the charismatic leader, Dr. Volmer who – for all intents and purposes – is like the head of a cult.
Verbinski has ensured that there is something decidedly off-centre about each of the characters, whether they be driven by greed, power, omnipotence or a desire for longer, healthier lives. Their interactions set and maintain the tone for the unease that is the picture’s mainstay. The patients are strangely subdued, in a trance-like state. Their attendants all fall into line, subservient to Dr. Volmer’s edicts and practices.
The ambitious, arrogant, “take no prisoners” persona of Lockhart is hardly in keeping with your classic hero. In fact, far from it. The ingénue, Hannah – the only resident that isn’t a pensioner (save for Lockhart) – has deep mental scars from her elongated captivity. This extended descent into madness will have some scratching their heads, while I dare say others will mouth words such as “poppycock” or “piffle”, or, most likely, something far less savoury. I, on the other hand, thought there was just enough there to keep me interested, if not totally sold, as A Cure for Wellness overstepped the boundaries of preposterousness. Rated MA, it scores a 6½ out of 10.
Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth, Adrian Schiller
Release Date: 16 March 2017
Rating: MA 15+
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television