A Cure For Wellness

(2016) *** R
146 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Gore Verbinski. Cast: Jason Isaacs, Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth.

/content/films/5036/1.jpgA Cure for Wellness, a disturbing new psychological horror film from Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean), isn’t quite right in the head, but that’s not such a bad thing. When you can watch a movie and wonder, “How did this ever get made?”, the director probably deserves a pat on the back. Apparently, it took nearly 10 million Euros from the German Federal Film Fund to get this subversive Gothic thriller made, so there’s your answer, but it’s still something of a shocker that 20th Century Fox is distributing Verbinski’s weird “eat the rich” excursion into the madhouse genre, with its slow descent into Grand Guignol.

In the opening moments, Verbinski initiates a creepy vision of big business: one night, within one of many indistinguishable black corporate towers, one company’s Salesman of the Year dramatically collapses upon receipt of a letter from CEO Roland E. Pembroke (Harry Groener). The letter lays out an epic “I’m out” manifesto worthy of “Occupy Wall Street”: “Unequal to our gifts,” most especially the capacity for self-reflection, “We build, we buy, we consume.” Pembroke’s “major Wall Street finance firm” anticipates a merger that will make it “one of the biggest financial service firms on the Eastern Seaboard,” and its board of directors naturally assumes the boss has lost his mind.

And so it is that a fiercely driven, Nicorette-popping young executive named Lockhart (a terrific Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his boss from The Volmer Institut, a seemingly idyllic but actually sinister "wellness spa" in the Swiss Alps. Lockhart’s driver Enrico (Ivo Nandi) deadpans, “Wealthy people have wealthy problems” as he delivers the young man up the spiraling path to the castle-turned-sanitorium housing the elders of international business, dressed in white and merrily playing and lounging around the grounds. Cryptic mottos like “Purity Before Wellness” and the something’s-off happiness of the exterior evoke The Village of TV’s The Prisoner (“No one ever leaves…why would anybody want to?”), but what’s inside rivals the Overlook Hotel for hallucinatory horror.

The original screenplay by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) alludes to Thomas Mann’s 1924 symbolic novel The Magic Mountain (which one Volmer employee reads on the job). A Cure for Wellness falls short of Mann’s allegorical ambition; despite begging for tightening at 146 minutes, the film falls well short of incisive in its thematic approach. Still, this nightmare narrative noodles around the idea of the metaphorical sicknesses that ail us while critiquing the insularity of two historical social orders living high above the “peasant” class: the greed and ambition of “Masters of the Universe” and the entitlement and privilege and moral rot of inbred royalty.

A Cure for Wellness also makes for a pretty decent mystery (much of it involving Mia Goth’s spacy “special case”) before climactically busting out into something right out of Mary Shelley. There’s a distinctive, invigorating creativity at work here, atmosphere to spare (think old-school Polanski), brilliant production design (Eve Stewart) and cinematography (Bojan Bazelli), and fine acting all around (Jason Isaacs digs his teeth into the role of Director Volmer). It’s far from perfect, but this treat for the eyes with ideas to consider feels like a miracle of a movie by offering so much more than we expect from the jump-scare horror to which we’ve resigned ourselves.

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