I don’t know why it took me so long to see A CURE FOR WELLNESS. I guess I missed it at the time and kept putting it off due to mediocre reviews, but what the fuck, Vern? You’ve liked this director since fucking MOUSE HUNT, you were won over by his remake of THE RING which you were ready to hate, you loved all three of his PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies (even that third one, after everyone turned on them), and you especially loved his widely hated (and now harder to vouch for for external reasons) THE LONE RANGER. Why would you care what anybody told you about this one?
Not that I liked this as much as most of those. But it’s a pretty good movie, it’s definitely a distinct one, and I’m disappointed in myself for neglecting the principle that a director who has already proven interesting is worth keeping track of even after everybody else dismisses them. Among other things, because of his lingering clout in the industry at the time this stands out as one of the rare modern horror movies done with lavish studio production values. It cost about $40 million (more than IT) and because it’s Verbinski every set and prop seems designed and built from scratch to fit into this world. We don’t need all or most horror movies to be this detailed, but it’s a treat to get one every once in a while.
The script is by Justin Haythe (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, SNITCH, THE LONE RANGER), story credit shared with Verbinski, and it’s an ambitious horror/sci-fi thriller with an asshole protagonist sent on a morally questionable mission getting embroiled in a mystery that opens up a whole other can of worms. Well, mostly eels. Also some worms, though.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, METALLICA: THROUGH THE NEVER) is an arrogant young executive at a New York financial firm who gets called in to the board of directors one day. The company is in crisis – CEO Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener, ROAD TO PERDITION) left a bizarre resignation letter and took off for an experimental wellness center in the Swiss Alps, but they need him to “sign off on certain legal matters” to avoid derailing “a merger that would make us one of the largest financial institutions on the Easter Seaboard.” They know that Lockhart himself cooked some books to get his position, and will screw him if he doesn’t do what they want: fly to this weird rich people hydrotherapy spa/sanitarium called the Volmer Institute and convince Pembroke to come back.
The institute is up on a mountain, looks like a castle and is resented by the villagers below. Locals throw shit at Lockhart’s car as he’s being driven up, and the driver Enrico (Ivo Nandi, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME) explains it as a 200 year old feud with a baron who tried to marry his sister. It’s a mysterious place where everything seems off, they claim the water from their ancient aquifer rejuvenates people, nobody seems to want to leave, employees seem fake-friendly and suspiciously evasive. But I immediately liked them better than Lockhart because he asks the nurse to make an exception to the visiting hours and when she says “There are no exceptions” he asks to see a manager. Verbinski lays it on extra thick with him checking his watch so we can see it’s a Rolex, and later he’ll be saying things like “I don’t want to have to get lawyers involved, but…” He doesn’t know it, but this protagonist is deeply uncool.
I think Verbinski is an incredible craftsman of cinematic sequences, and the one that really kicks off this story is a great sample of that talent. They won’t let Lockhart see Pembroke yet, and he can’t get a cell signal, so he decides to go find a hotel, and as Enrico is driving him back he notices a young woman (motherfuckin PEARL herself, Mia Goth!) standing barefoot on a stone wall above. You can sense the boners in his eyes but also he’s gotta be wondering why there’s only this one young person in the place, and more importantly is she about to jump? So as the car makes its way down the winding road he keeps craning his neck around to watch her, the camera rotating to make us feel like we’re in the car with him, and no, thank god, she seems to just be watching, not committing suicide.
When they get to the bottom and she disappears from view Enrico sees him in the mirror thinking about it and says, “Pretty girl,” acknowledging he saw her too. Lockhart doesn’t respond, but suddenly notices through the window a deer running through the woods toward them – it’s too late, they hit him, an antler pierces the windshield and he’s stuck, wriggling around on the hood, the car drives off the road, flips, bounces and rolls down the hill through the woods. We see Lockhart being thrown around inside the car, shards of glass flying everywhere, then hallucinogenic flashes and a memory of having his mother cremated. Back in the woods, leaves are showering down from the accident, and (this is the shot that really nails it for me) the deer limps pathetically into another road, the rubber outer lining of the windshield stuck around him like six-pack rings on a seagull. He falls and struggles back up and finally collapses, his chest heaving just out of focus in the background as the camera moves over to one wheel of the inverted car just as it stops spinning.
Admittedly it’s kind of damning to say that a sequence at this point in the story is the best part of the movie, but god damn. And it reminds me that my favorite part of THE RING was when a horse got loose on a Washington State Ferry. Verbinski knows that hooved animals are a problem.
Anyway, Lockhart wakes up and finds himself a patient at the place, with a cast on his leg, so it turns into a quasi-detective story where he’s limping around on crutches trying to find information, talk to Pembroke, steal files, etc. He meets the head doctor, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs, WINDTALKERS), who apologizes for not having hunted the deer on the property since he doesn’t like to hurt innocent creatures who “were here long before us.” Lockhart also meets the girl on the wall, a mysterious weirdo named Hannah who doesn’t remember not being in the hospital and says she won’t ever get to leave because she’s “a special case.” Goth was in her early twenties, but plays Hannah more like a little girl, but also Lockhart is clearly attracted to her (or at least he dreams about her in a bath tub full of eels) so interpret that how you will.
When he finds Pembroke and tries to convince him to help with “the situation in New York,” it’s an interesting conflict, kind of a “whoever wins, we lose” situation between scummy business fuckos and culty spa conspirators. Lockhart is saying shit like “Word that the merger is in trouble has leaked, the share price is in free fall,” and Pembroke responds with ramblings about the great man Dr. Volmer and the body is 65% water so the fluids must be pure and what not.
Obviously the institute is sinister or we wouldn’t have a movie, but Mr. CEO here still has a much healthier attitude than Lockhart. He calls the kid’s career ambition “the sickness” and laments “The pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things.” But then he submerges himself in the pool and when he comes back up he starts asking about stock prices and has decided to go with him to New York. And Lockhart is a piece of shit so he’s gonna go along with it.
The next day Pembroke is mysteriously unavailable and supposedly moved to “the next stage of his treatment,” clearly the nefarious dealings of Dr. Volmer and yet – obviously he should not have gone back to Wall Street! So both parties are wrong here.
It’s a longer movie than maybe necessary (146 minutes) but I appreciate the way it slowly ratchets the strangeness. For most of the first hour it’s a stylish paranoia thriller, but about 55 minutes in they put him in a sensory deprivation tank and he may be having “visions, even primal memories” as the “toxins” leave him, but it seems to be reality that a bunch of eels come into the tank and his mask slips off but when he bangs on the window the attendant doesn’t notice him because he’s jerking off while a topless nurse feeds him vitamins through an eyedropper. That’s cinema!
Then there’s a refreshing tangent from the institute when he gets Hannah to drive him into town on her bicycle. She’s never been outside and he brings her to a pub where she drinks beer for the first time and dances to “funky German music” (according to the subtitles) with a punk dude while Lockhart gets a nearby veterinarian (Magnus Krepper, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE) to look over stolen medical files and then watches him cut open a pregnant cow dumping out the baby and a bunch of live eels. When he comes back he gets in a fight with the guy for feeling up Hannah and gets thrown into a table, but suddenly Volmer and staff show up to retrieve their special case.
I like how it seems like Lockhart could just not go back with them, but then the local youths come out and pose like tough guys so yeah, on second thought he’ll take that ride back to the institute, thank you very much.
On the back half it completely bugs out as he discovers the more far-fetched shit going on at the institute, pulls out one of his teeth, finds a secret tunnel down to an underground lair where he watches a henchman who might as well be called Mongo (but he’s just “Frank” – Tomas Norstrom) flop a rubbery corpse into a pool to be fed on by eels, then bludgeons him to death.
In one of those really effective wincing horror scenes he gets strapped into a chair with his lips clamped open and a dentist drills right into one of his front teeth. And I gotta tell you I found it even more horrifying when they put this fuckin thing on his mouth…
…what is that – a reverse ball-gag? Really upsetting to see even before they shove a tube down his throat and eels swim into him.
There are lots of cool bits here. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense, I love when he (spoiler) breaks a water glass, bloodily cuts through his cast with a shard and discovers that his leg is not actually broken. Those bastards!
The mood is everything in a movie like this, so credit is due to composer Benjamin Wallfisch (BLADE RUNNER 2049) for a haunting score based around a children’s song that Hannah sings, and of course to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (PUMPKINHEAD, KING OF NEW YORK, 6 UNDERGROUND). Meaning can be read into visual motifs like the focus on water imagery (water cooler, sweating ice water pitcher, dead goldfish in a bowl) and reflections (the side of a train, the surface of a fountain). There are so many loaded little details. I like the moment when the only female board member (Lisa Banes, GONE GIRL) tries to shock-scare Lockhart with a racist prison rape joke, and Lockhart’s eyes dart over to the only Black board member (Carl Lumbly, M.A.N.T.I.S.), who remains stone-faced.
This is a movie that does not respect corporate America. Maybe that’s why little Lockhart is playing with a Robocop action figure in the flashback of his father leaping to his death while still wearing a suit and tie and holding a briefcase.
As far as the finale being fun, I must warn that it gets gross in an attempted sexual assault sort of way, but on the other hand the good doctor punctuates a self righteous speech about sacrifice by tearing off his face, and it kinda seems like a continuation of the great c.g. makeup technology Verbinski pioneered with Davey Jones, ‘cause he looks like this:
Then he gets lit on fire and twirls around and it’s ironically intercut with robed cultists ballroom dancing elsewhere in the building. And then sparks shower down into that ballroom and light the drapes on fire, and Verbinski goes full Verbinski with a great combination of spectacular fire stunts and more spectacular fire FX with beautiful lighting and perfect camera moves. Honestly there aren’t many directors as good as him at creating this type of spectacle. Great stuff.
I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about the secrets that are uncovered, but I do like where it leaves the character at the end. Lockhart leaves the burning institute bloodied and wearing a bathrobe and runs into the board members fresh off the plane from New York coming to retrieve him. He briefly contemplates going with them, but then says, “Actually I’m feeling better” and rides off on a bicycle with Hannah. Maybe it’s unearned, but I appreciate the choice to abandon his former douchebag life to do who-the-fuck-knows-what. Again, a healthy decision, though the final shot tells us he’s turned into Jack Torrance.
Even before the scene where Hannah has her period and cries “What’s happening to me?,” this movie made me think damn, if the people making the CARRIE remake had known about Mia Goth… I guess she was in NYMPHOMANIAC that year, so she had started acting. Maybe she would’ve been closer to a Spacek-type than they wanted, but she would’ve been great. She was really quite a casting find here, capturing an otherworldliness and agelessness that’s gotta be hard to find, and that she has now put to even better use in PEARL.
I feel bad writing this, but I believe the thing that really holds the movie back is DeHaan. It’s not his fault – he just seems like the wrong choice for this character. You have to wonder if somebody thought “This is kinda like SHUTTER ISLAND, and he kinda looks like DiCaprio, so this is our guy.” There’s something interesting and unorthodox about a mumbly, soft-spoken shy guy as the lead, but the movie presents Lockhart as a hot shot alpha male financial bro. I know he cheated to get there, but I still don’t buy the other characters kissing this particular person’s ass and thinking he’s cool because he got the corner office and “I heard he closed the Reynolds account.” He could work as the sniveling Jared Kushner type rich kid weiner, but that’s not what they tell us he is. His dad worked at the company but was “too honest,” was driven out and committed suicide. He was not in a position to install his twerp kid at the top.
There’s a long scene where Lockhart is in a steambath so he just has a towel on, and he’s boyishly skinny. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate any rebellion against Hollywood’s muscle obsession, but it’s another thing I just don’t buy for a guy in this job. He would be too vain and self conscious not to be going to the gym every day to not look like that. It doesn’t compute. So I’m not sure DeHaan even looks the part, but he definitely doesn’t sound it, with a quiet voice and an early-Keanu-Reeves accent. I just don’t buy that this company would accept him as he is.
DeHaan does his best. He chews gum, acts like a prick to service people, makes annoying business calls on the train, does a number of too-proud-of-himself condescending speeches. But I think we have to just decide we like the idea of this character’s arc from douchebag to hero, because it doesn’t really get sold to us. I think it could work way better with an actor who’s having more fun being the asshole and makes a more convincing transformation to seeing the light(ish).
I had a similar struggle watching him play a charming and capable lead in VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (released the same year), though I was rooting for him so much I gave him a pass. He’s just one of those actors who blew up really suddenly, being in CHRONICLE, LAWLESS, LINCOLN and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES all in one year, so they started saying “This guy is the next big thing. Have him fight Spider-Man!” He makes much more sense playing broody side characters than leads, which is a perfectly respectable vocation.
Maybe his blockbuster leading man period ended after CURE and VALERIAN flopped and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN got the reboot, but he seems to still be getting big roles in television. He’s even in Christopher Nolan’s next movie. Verbinski hasn’t had as much luck. This was a big flop following his bigger flop of THE LONE RANGER, and now it’s five years later and he hasn’t directed again. Not that he hasn’t been trying – when he dropped out of a movie about Gambit from the X-Men in 2018 it was due to “scheduling issues with several other projects on the director’s plate.” But none of those seem eminent – I guess even if you’re the guy who figures out how to make a concept everybody laughed at (they’re making a movie out of a Disneyland ride!?) into a massively profitable and unfailingly ambitious epic blockbuster trilogy, that only gives you so much gas in the tank.
But I learned my lesson. Next time he makes something, I won’t dilly dally, I’ll go see it. I owe him that much.
P.S. Here are some extra screengrabs to show off that it’s a Gore Verbinski type movie.
November 15th, 2022 at 7:33 am
Yup, that’s definitely an underrated little gem. Not perfect (I can’t remember one single movie where DeHaan wasn’t the weakest link, also it’s the only Verbinski movie that I would call too long. The trip down to the village would be my first suggestion to leave it on the cutting room floor), but if you are into classic European mood-and-weirdness-over-logic horror, this one is for you! All that was missing was maybe Udo Kier and a Progrock score.