A calamity of inspiration and ingenuity, along with banality and over-indulgence, Gore Verbinski’s chilly, Euro-malevolent A Cure for Wellness is the tonal opposite of the brash, giddy Americana of his previous feature, The Lone Ranger, but they are undoubtedly kindred spirits. Three years after having written it, I remain wracked by my review of that earlier film, lost as it was in its own incredulous eccentricities and tonal spasms that destabilized it to its very core. But I now suspect that I and other reviewers were as misguided as the film was, and I now appreciate The Lone Ranger – at great cost in cognitive-dissonance to myself – as not only an undeniably peculiar blockbuster but a boisterously, almost radically singular one. Not a film as compulsive, fanatical, and personally tormented as, say, Speed Racer, to name the reigning misunderstood blockbuster of the past decade, but the rare tentpole that stands up in the name of individual vision even in the face of individual blunder. A Cure for Wellness similarly missteps all over the place, but it is also a riposte to corporate homogeneity, the caliber of visionary medium-budgeted film that used to populate the multiplexes off and on but is now nearly extinct. Situationally, then, A Cure for Wellness often feels like a sudden discovery, a giddy “they spent how much money on this?” curio that suggests Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean good faith will never run out.
A Cure for Wellness is also an essentially an envious construction, a cross-pollination of styles from a devoted follower of B-movie fashion that is self-evidently desiring of the fame these films hold among cinephiles. It is also only sometimes empathic to its forebears, as if experiencing the terror and titillation of those films reliving themselves in the confines of this one. At other times, Verbinski’s creation is essentially none-the-wiser about how to reclaim their peculiar animus, their cocktail of strangeness and wonder that evoked a sense of fear seemingly being discovered by those films as they went along. Comparatively, A Cure for Wellness is a little too conspicuously-constructed to evoke a similar thrill of the unexpected, largely because it seems that Verbinski has so vigorously preplanned every emotional spasm, plot-shift, and sometimes-shrill affectation of theme for A Cure for Wellness to actually discover anything mid-film, for Verbinski’s ideas to spread like venom or a plague and outstrip his capacity to program them for us. Or, more ideally, for his film to excite with the self-propagating intellectual brio of a roving, unchained mind in search of meaning that deliciously resists the film’s capacity to truly wrangle itself into place.
Which is to say two things. First, this story about a wealthy American corporate climber (Dane Dehaan) sent to the foot of the Swiss Alps to relocate an executive being treated at a suspicious institute for the ill is actually little more than a vigorously mounted outpouring of a film fanboy, a discharge from the mind itself. I would not be the first to compare A Cure for Wellness’ European resort location to Sorrentino’s Youth or the faded, antediluvian specter of the past that haunts the spa to Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. But the film’s real heart lies in marauding through B-cinema history, from Universal horror down to the Grandest of Guignols right out of ‘70s Italy, plundering any inspiration it can out of its sheer intoxication to be part of the in-crowd. Or the outsiders, depending on our view of freakish cinema.
Secondly, this is also to say that A Cure for Wellness is a mock-Teutonic construction, a product of a dictatorial style, a toybox or a dollhouse where the people are part of the mobile decorum, the placeable ornamentation, with Verbinski ingesting the authoritarian buzz of any despot able to manipulate his extras and set-dressing to his heart’s content. A Cure for Wellness emphasizes the sheer cinematic pull of mastery, or at least a facade of mastery, of the careful calibration of a whirring machine of pure cinema. Sometimes, I might even say usually, this is to the benefit of A Cure for Wellness, a film of magisterial, if overly-controlled, beauty, a rhapsody of imagery and sound, both concussive and slithering, beset with an extreme perfectionist itch. From Jenny Beaven’s eminently careful costume-design to Eve Stewart’s chilly amalgamation of classic cinematic sets to Bojan Bazelli’s extraordinarily fastidious lensing, every element of A Cure for Wellness is enlivened by (beset with?) a colossally mannered current of extremely-pinpoint furnishment. This choking amalgamation of (overly?)considered accoutrements lock the film down through its sheer monumentality, its excess, so it can burrow into the trenches of the unknown and the unfathomable, into fear itself. From the symmetric shots to the self-reflexive mirrors littering the screen and drawing attention to self-image and cinema’s representational capacity, A Cure for Wellness is the sort of film in which there is a place for everything, and everything is (violently) held into place.
When I write “violence” though, I refer not only to the onslaught of carnage flaunted by the film but the psychic violence of a film which is so committed to its thesis that it disallows itself any free roaming space, any opportunity to imagine beyond the narrow corridor of its argument. An argument which is less astute than the film thinks it is, to boot. While the horror in A Cure for Wellness is unfathomable, the eventual allegory in Justin Haythes’ screenplay for A Cure for Wellness is somewhat depressingly, deflatingly fathomable. At the spa, the Volmer Institute, headed by Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), patients amble about in a fugue state, seemingly content to fidget and fume while, we learn, they are being treated via apparently-wellness-inducing water from the spring nearby. As expected though, the whole façade is a sort of trap, and more importantly, an external materialization of a metaphor about the aimless lethargy of the bourgeoisie who are made sickly and jaundiced by capitalism. Not to mention the alienated aristocracy who in turn prey on this sickness by pitting the bourgeois and the proletariat against each other in service of their own eternal well-being. And, also not to mention, the psychic violence that the myth of the old holds over the new, the continual and seemingly implacable need to search for tradition as an avenue for sanity, comfort, and purpose in life.
A Cure for Wellness is a bludgeon of a motion picture, plain and simple, and it’s also more infatuated with its aesthetic vision than its ethical quandary. Even as an obvious polemic, it is too encumbered by the lock-step perfection of the filmmaking to locate the sort of carried-away-with-the-spirit-of-the-moment passion of a true firebrand. It’s too composed, too immaculate, too crystalline. Gone is the scruffy, cartoonish eccentricity of The Lone Ranger, Rango, or the first Pirates of the Caribbean, replaced with an equally messy film but one where a fetish for unerring composure and order creates a totally closed circuit. A closure driven into relief when the extraordinarily tasteless final half-hour arrives, a climax that represents a full-flowering of vision, a mushrooming of the film’s self into gleeful, gonzo chaos that retroactively dethrones much of what Verbinski attempts earlier on. Self-evidently fable-adjacent and essentially exploitative, it is only in the conclusion when A Cure for Wellness properly unmoors itself from its prestige scripture and lets it all hang out. Here, and only here, A Cure for Wellness finally, and wonderfully, exhibits the murderous aplomb of a tentpole that could be driven mad via its own obscure, alienating attempts to wrangle all its curiosities and contradictions into a dialogue rather than a collection of oppositions, a film where order and chaos are inextricably at each other’s throats with no room for remove. But until this climax, there’s much less scar tissue, fewer lesions in the film, little in the way of real rancor, no signs of the film wounding itself to really explore its thesis or question its supremacy over the film. Stacked to the rafter with personal calling cards, A Cure for Wellness may always control its craft to an almost microscopic level, but that does not mean that it always, or even often, understands its craft at such a level.