A Cure For Wellness
Gore Verbinski’s Rango and The Lone Ranger are brilliant exercises in orchestrated madness. Both feature mentally unstable heroes who thrive on disorder and feverishly tweak genre tropes with lightning speed, ultimately revealing convention to be a gateway into the hallucinatory. If the talented filmmaker of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Mexican has always displayed an eccentric streak, it’s his westerns starring Johnny Depp that are genuinely weird studio outliers that regularly challenge how American history is remembered.
With A Cure for Wellness, a devilish and bonkers psychological thriller set in the digital age, Verbinski more directly approaches themes of psychosis and toxicity. Formally, the film is an antiseptic nightmare—imposing skyscrapers are serenely stacked up in succession like landing planes frozen in time, layers upon layers of glass and color inundating the eye with texture.
The opening scene surveys mostly empty spaces at a major investment firm before lingering over the shoulder of a particularly overworked broker. Death becomes him in the form of a massive heart attack, with Verbinski then slyly cutting away to a massive tomb of monitors and stock graphs for his title card. It all might seem serene, but this is just the film’s way of implying the damaging effects of noise and stress through unnerving quiet.
Trouble has been brewing at this particular company for a long time. With a major merger pending, blood-sucking board members are scrambling to restore order after receiving an alarming letter from their CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener). The once-capitalist enforcer has shunned corporate life for an indefinite stay at a cultish sanitarium in the Swiss Alps. The powers that be send in a young hotshot named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) to bring their corrupt leader back.
Verbinski embraces picturesque vistas once the film moves to the rarefied air of big sky country. Expansive rows of trees and mountains stand in unison as Lockhart makes the final leg of his journey up the hill to a saintly white facility ruled with quiet authority by the suspicious Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Menace ventilates through the air of this crisp space; floors of glistening tile lead to cordoned-off rooms, creepy steam baths and archaic chambers for water therapy. The patients are all unnaturally happy in their quest for “the cure.”
Verbinski pings noticeable abnormalities in the environment while highlighting Lockhart’s obsessive obliviousness and arrogance in completing his mission. But these blinders are permanently destroyed during a brutal car accident involving a deer. Once sequestered with a broken leg, Lockhart is forced to explore the potential horrors of the centuries-old sanitarium.
At times ludicrous and exhilarating, A Cure for Wellness embraces the silliness of its plot without a hint of irony. Lockhart’s stumbling pursuit through the shadowy corridors and history of the hospital begins as a quest for truth but eventually evolves into a resurrection of the soul.
The character’s body gets figuratively and literally disfigured, calling to mind the constant roughhousing J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) experiences in Chinatown. DeHaan’s dedicated performance borders on slapstick—messy, exaggerated and determined. On the other hand Isaacs seems to be embodying Vincent Price with his sneering entitlement and charming extremism.
Stricken by an over-stuffed narrative, the film still feels like a brisk descent into a vintage movie world where we are the monsters. This is Roger Corman territory, and Verbinski delights at the chance to pull the camera back and watch the world burn. Some of the best moments feature fire and water, enraged elements erasing both manmade traumas and structures.
Some may naturally go looking for political subtext in A Cure for Wellness, but doing so would misunderstand the film’s intentions. Verbinski is more interested in stretching the boundaries of our senses through cinema, contorting logic to breakdown walls of conformity. If we happen to look in the mirror afterward and see ourselves anew, then so be it.