A Cure for Wellness ends up another Hollywood movie about why being a workaholic is bad. And yet director Gore Verbinski makes the whole baroque horror atmosphere and plotting so intensely odd and unsettlingly drifting that I can’t help but admire it. Even as I found myself asking, “Why am I seeing this?” during the movie’s winding, repetitive middle, I couldn’t look away. (Well, except for the part with the aesthesia-free dental drilling. I had to squirm and squint then.) It’s set largely at a massive Swiss sanitarium set up in a sprawling nightmarish castle (one which houses centuries-old secrets, no less). There you can check out, but you can never leave. So discovers ambitious finance guy Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) when sent to retrieve his company’s missing chairman. The old man (Harry Groener) has been holed up in this place receiving aqua-therapy: steamed, dipped, dripped, and dunked while drinking plenty of fluids. And yet he never seems to get any better. And the head doctor (Jason Isaacs) insinuates he won’t any time soon. And the nurses won’t seem to call Lockhart a cab. And then he somehow topsy-turvy ends up a patient there himself. Now we’re all trapped, wondering how there could possibly be a way out of this Kafka-meets-Kubrick hall of body horrors.
As it begins we see dark ominous low-angle shots of a midnight modern cityscape, towering skyscrapers like one with a single glowing office in which a harried guy checks stocks and answers emails until he dies of a heart attack. It looks like a 90’s Fincher effort – mostly The Game – or the technological/supernatural isolation and paranoia of Verbinski’s own (great) The Ring. (He’s once again working with that film’s director of photography, Bojan Bazelli, brining the beautiful film in a similarly drained sumptuousness.) But by the time the young protagonist arrives at the health spa castle in the picturesque Swiss Alps, the whole production slips easily into a modern-day Gothic horror. (It’s not only the repeated eel imagery giving the movie its slithering, inevitable forward motion.) The place has a dark history, old lockets, hidden rooms, secretive groundskeepers, eerily unbending rules, stern authority figures, and a pretty, pale young woman (Mia Goth) with a mysterious past. Lockhart is drawn deeper into the hallucinatory hallways (think a Shining hospital) and the spooky subtext as doctors don’t quite say all they mean, and teeth fall out, urine samples have icky substances floating in them, and fellow patients are increasingly confused or confusing.
Running well over two hours, the script by Verbinski and Justin Haythe (Snitch) takes its time doling out clues and suspicions, only fully unspooling its knotty, baroquely upsetting backstory in its final moments. This gives most of the film over to atmosphere, wandering down the same halls, seeing increasingly suspicious behavior and ever more unhinged gross medical procedures. Here modernity has been thoroughly colonized by the Gothic imagination. Verbinski’s strong command of tone and genre has befitted his career resuscitating old modes with a twist. He’s made a ghost story (The Ring), westerns (Rango, The Lone Ranger), pirate movies (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean), madcap slapstick (Mouse Hunt) and screwball heists (The Mexican), all old-fashioned forms told with newfangled vernacular. With Wellness he drags Gothic trappings into now, tapping into a potent feeling of gaslit befuddlement. He conjures an atmosphere of unspeakable wrongness, allowing an in-over-his-head protagonist to wandering the clammy corridors and sweaty stones with increasing unease. He’s slowly losing his mind, unable to put the pieces together, pacified only by flirtations with the mystery girl and the stunning mountain views. He could very nearly forget why he’s there, but for the sudden dips into disturbing escalation: locked in a sensory deprivation chamber, hallucinating a deer in the steam room, hearing odd whistling rattles from around corners and down dark vents.
The people running the spa are quite transparently up to no good, and their constant lies and obfuscations when asked direct questions don’t seem to matter. So what if Lockhart knows they are lying when their cult of wealthy health nuts is happy in a cocoon of misinformation? There’s a perceptive strain of anti-intellectualism hiding under mindless quantification happening here, wrapped up in a nasty, pulpy mystery. (Timely, no?) It answers the question of why we’re watching this queasy blend of inevitable and adrift plotting in the same way as the question of why our protagonist doesn’t just leave. We’re all too curious to see how this thing turns out. For a finale, Verbinski has the movie devolve into a faintly more standard grotesque scramble, with vulnerable nubile flesh juxtaposed with a monster’s drooping, drooling face while the hero takes decisive action. But the filmmaker maintains such a vice grip of stunning imagery and sustained, teeth-gritted gross-out tension, straight through to the final shot, that it’s hard to shake the film’s sinister insistent spell. It’s as slithery as a bathtub full of eels wriggling around a bathing woman who peers over the edge with an inscrutable stare. The movie is full of such mesmerizing, disturbing allure. It is masterfully directed mush.