Though Gore Verbinski has made a name for himself with large Hollywood studio pictures like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Lone Ranger,” he’s always had a weird streak; a “one for them, one for me” mentality, interspersing in films like “The Weather Man” and “Rango.” “A Cure for Wellness,” a horror film set at a spa in the Swiss Alps, is most definitely one for him.
Here, “wellness” could easily be a euphemism for “wealth.” A powerful Wall Street banker, Pembroke (Harry Groener), runs off to a Swiss spa and writes back to his comrades about truths that he can’t unsee and that he’s not returning. An upstart young banker, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), is sent to retrieve him to stave off a business emergency, pressed into action by his superiors with threats of blackmail.
Lockhart swaggers into the spa like he owns the place, but it’s not easy to get his boss on the next red-eye back to New York. He suffers a car accident and broken leg, and everyone keeps pushing the special water on him. Once you check in, it’s near impossible to check out. He’s ultimately drawn into the morbid tale of the place’s history, about a mad baron, a baroness, his sister and the villagers who burned them to the ground.
Written by Verbinski and Justin Haythe, the film is inspired by Thomas Mann’s 1924 book “The Magic Mountain,” and yet the concerns feel all too modern. It plays on the desire for a magic tonic to cure the creeping ails of modern life that reared its head during the dawning of modernity. However, it’s all too contemporary, too, indicting the ways many today search for clarity and soulfulness in yoga, diets, mindfulness apps. The film is a deft illustration of the desire for retreatism inspired by the ruthlessness of modern urban life, and the ways that desire can be exploited.
There are subtle yet powerful themes running through “A Cure for Wellness” about the danger and inherent evil in striving for the purity of blood. The baron was so obsessed with the purity of his royal bloodline that he resorted to incest and was driven to madness. His ethos has lived on; at the spa, they obsessively purify the “fluids” of the body, to dastardly ends.
“A Cure for Wellness” is an odd film. It’s exceedingly well-crafted; the attention to detail and design, composition and camera movement on display here has largely been abandoned by recent horror films grasping for a jarring sense of realism. The production design of blues, greens and yellows is cool and lush, matching DeHaan’s ice blue eyes and pale features.
And yet, it still succumbs to its base instincts, delivering snatches of the gruesomeness violence and bodice-ripping demanded by the genre.
Through the two and a half hour running time, it builds and builds on its dread, but in the last act, a few twists and story beats are fumbled, and in the end, it turns into a 1930s Universal-style gothic, psychosexual monster flick.
The themes are both obvious and shallow. We aren’t left with a strong message. But “A Cure for Wellness” is just weird enough to inspire a cultish fascination. That it leans into its oddest predilections makes it all the more admirable, even though it doesn’t quite hang together. It’s a flawed masterpiece, but masterful nonetheless.
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