It feels strange to be the only person on Earth to love certain films. 2016’s A Cure for Wellness is largely regarded with indifference at best. I wonder if anybody who acted in it or worked behind the scenes on it even likes it.
I think it is a shame if has been so disregarded, as this is a much stranger film than I would expect from a major studio. It is definitely a far weirder film than I would have expected from Gore Verbinski, who gave us more installments of Pirates of the Caribbean than anybody asked for. He also gave us the massive box office bomb that was The Lone Ranger, and one would think that would have killed his career.
Instead, he was given the reins to make a film so weird it feels like it has to be some sort of personal statement. I was looking at IMDB to see what Verbinski has been up to since this 2016 picture face-planted at the box office (albeit, not as badly as The Lone Ranger). Turns out he hasn’t done anything since, and doesn’t even seem to be currently working on anything. Hard to believe Wellness is the film that landed him in movie jail, but the same happened to Scorsese when he made The King of Comedy.
Dane DeHaan stars as an arrogant young buck looking to claw his way to the top on Wall Street. He will find himself changed radically in an attempt at a deceptively simple mission. All he has to do is get a board member of his firm out of a Swiss sanatorium.
The board needs that missing man, played by Harry Groener, to come back and be the scapegoat for some nebulous business that, once addressed, will clear the way for a merger that will save the company. DeHaan is forced to go to Switzerland because the board caught him trying to do some creative accounting.
The board is intimidating, especially its sole female member (Lisa Banes), who I swear never blinks. She just fixes the DeHaan in a detached, but intimidating, gaze while calmly saying things like “Have you ever had a twelve-inch black dick up your ass? That’s right, we’re talking about prison.”
How interesting DeHaan will be going to a sanatortium, as work is obviously taking its toll on him. I don’t know if “chain chewing” is a phrase, but that’s the best way to describe DeHaan’s consumption of nicotine gum. He’s chewing it on the train ride across Europe. He’s chewing it on the long limo ride that passes through the only village we’ll see. I’m not sure if he stops chewing when an angry villager throws something at the windshield. We’ll see more of the angry villagers later. I think he’s still chewing as the car winds through an upwardly spiraling drive that appears to be part of the ancient sanatorium.
I wonder what location was used for this, and where on Earth it is, as it is mesmerizing and gorgeous. I have never seen a structure quite like this one. It’s like somebody took that long corkscrew drive some parking garages have at their core, and somehow melded it with a medieval castle.
The sanatorium is beautiful as well. Whatever building this really is must be pretty freaking old. There’s also a little bit of the original castle poking out of the ground in the courtyard. That was left over after villagers burned it to the ground a couple of hundred years ago. And those villagers are obviously still upset. With how old everything is in Europe, I suppose something that happened 200 years ago is recent news to these people. I imagine they keep the torches and Frankenstein rakes within arms’ reach at all times.
DeHaan arrives just minutes after visiting hours are over for the day, so he leaves without Groener and threatens to return the next day. He’ll be returning sooner than that. On the road back to the village, the limo collides with a deer in an exhilarating scene. DeHaan awakens to discover his entire right leg is in a cast.
So now he is stuck in the hospital for an indeterminate amount of time, surrounded by old, wealthy patients who never seem to recover from their undefined illnesses. They are all there to take the mysterious “cure”, and that oxymoron of a title already tells you this probably doesn’t turn out well for anybody.
Celia Imrie plays my favorite of those patients. She’s forever trying to uncover the full extent of the bizarre happenings of 200 years prior. As she tells DeHaan, the baron of that castle married his own sister. Then the baron had the village priest hung when he wouldn’t bless the marriage. The village then enacted revenge by burning down the castle and cutting the infant from his sister/wife’s womb.
Imrie asks DeHaan if he likes puzzles. “Not really”, is his reply. Guess that’s too bad for him, because he is now immersed in many mysteries. There’s elements such as a caretaker wheeling covered stretchers into the old ruins in the middle of the night. There seem to be little creatures of some sort growing in urine samples. There’s the strange vitamin drops everybody is taking which DeHaan, upon receiving his first dose, describes as “sweaty seafood”.
It’s hard to believe, but his assessment is surprisingly accurate. And it is elements like that which intrigue me so much about this movie. There is much here doesn’t make conventional sense, yet which also does not feel like total bullshit. Everything in the world of this movie seems to make a kind of sense, even if only in its own reality. I know I reference it too much, but this is yet another film that reminds me favorably of Suspiria. That is another picture where I am fascinated by so much that does not adhere to traditional logic, and I was even pleased that not everything is explained by the end. It is this aspect of it which has led me to watch Wellness, a rather long movie, multiple times.
It is no surprise Jason Isaacs, as the owner of the clinic, is up to something diabolical. Might it involve Mia Goth, a “special case” who is the only patient there besides DeHaan who is not of retirement age? And doesn’t Isaacs seem to be quite the father figure to her? Hmm…
I will not say anything to spoil the third act for anybody, but I will say it makes a bizarre left turn into a different genre entirely. While the story was predominately a suspense thriller up to that point (with maybe a soupcon of medical thriller), it becomes a weird, Grand Guignol spectacular in the last act. It is so gothic it even takes place in catacombs while robed figures waltz in the sanatorium above. There’s even a touch of folk horror to these happenings.
I will say one thing, however, about the end stretch and that is how unpleasant it is to see Mia Goth topless for an extended time. The discomfort isn’t necessarily because she is bare-chested, but the circumstances in which this happens. It is something done in very bad taste, and the one big misstep the film makes, in my estimation.
In the final shot of A Cure for Wellness, DeHaan will find himself transformed, maybe even saved, by his experience. And yet his grin seems more disturbing than anything. All I could think of was the final line of A Clockwork Orange, where Malcolm McDowell’s Alex has clearly gone insane and creepily intones in voiceover, “Oh, I was cured all right.” Unlike that movie, Wellness has yet to find the cult audience it deserves. If it ever does, then maybe Verbinski can finally be released from movie jail.
Dir: Gore Verbinski
Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth
Watched on blu-ray