I knew almost nothing about A Cure for Wellness prior to Fox’s 2017 Showcase event, except that it was the latest from Gore Verbinski, director of The Ring and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and that the first teaser videos quietly released a few weeks ago were the perfect combination of bizarre and mysterious, putting it right to the top of my “must-see without knowing anything more about it” list.
That said, experiencing the first act of A Cure for Wellness recently left me more or less safely unspoiled from any major surprises, and definitely whet my appetite (pun intended) until the film is released in February 2017. I will try not to give away too much, but here are my impressions from what we’ve seen so far from Verbinski’s latest.
A Cure for Wellness opens with ominous, stark shots of office buildings in New York City. A workaholic executive laboring away late at night receives a letter embossed with an odd wax seal: two eels intertwined. He examines the envelope but does not open it, too distracted by his computer. He momentarily refreshes himself at the water cooler and is suddenly hit with some sort of debilitating seizure that leaves him twitching on the floor.
Some time later, Lockhart, a Wolf of Wall Street-type junior executive played by Dane DeHaan, is called into a meeting with some higher-ups, who pointedly accuse him of wrongdoing. Lockhart sweats them for a minute, but they reveal they want something more from him: to retrieve the company CEO who retreated to a “wellness clinic” in the Swiss Alps, leaving behind only a cryptic letter of resignation, and hasn’t been heard from since. The same executive who suffered the sudden seizure. On the condition that Lockhart returns with the CEO so an important pending merger can be closed, the accusations against him will be forgotten, leaving Lockhart with little choice.
When he arrives in Switzerland, a driver takes him up the mountain to the clinic, through a local village whose residents seem to be of the pitchfork and torch variety, and none too friendly to outsiders. The clinic is housed in an old castle at the top of a mountain overlooking the village below—a picture-postcard view of a classic mad scientist residence. Apparently, the castle itself has a storied history involving blue-blooded intermarrying and revolt.
Lockhart discovers there is, of course, zero cell phone signal anywhere on the grounds, and strict visiting hours for guests, which he has missed. He asks the attending nurse on duty to see the director of the clinic immediately, and is brought to his office. The Director, played by the always solid Jason Isaacs, tells Lockhart he cannot interrupt the guests during treatments, but he will make an exception to the visitor policy if he comes back later.
Lockhart notices all the “guests” at the clinic appear happy and relaxed, if not a bit odd. He then glimpses a strange girl standing precariously on ledges around the clinic, looking down at him. As he makes his way back to the village, a freak accident occurs on the winding road, and Lockhart awakes days later in a leg cast, recuperating in the clinic. The Director assures him that his bosses were notified, and that everyone agrees rest and time to heal are the most important things for Lockhart right now, and all will be taken care of in due time. Lockhart, of course, is immediately suspicious, but plays along, unable to do much else.
While wandering the halls of the clinic, He is stopped and questioned by a nurse. He says he is unsure of where he needs to be at the moment, and gives the CEO’s name as his own. The nurse checks the schedule and directs him to the sauna for his steam treatment. He apologizes for his absent-mindedness and heads to the sauna, and hopefully, the missing CEO.
As Lockhart searches for the CEO in the steam rooms, he gets lost and has a strange experience, unsure if his mind is playing tricks on him... there is a montage of bizarre images (some seen in the trailer) including a tank of eels and the mysterious girl glimpsed earlier, submerged and suspended underwater, slowly turning, making it unable to get a clear look at her face.
These first thirty minutes set up an atmospheric, haunting, modern gothic mystery with beautiful, surreal visuals. It’s an old-school ’70s throwback, stylistically evoking filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick. In fact, DeHaan mentioned at the Showcase event that Verbinski asked him to watch The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Don’t Look Now to prepare for the film. Verbinski added that he wanted to do something as ambitious as those films.
Verbinski wrote A Cure For Wellness with screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) and commented on the film’s aesthetic:
"...We’re both fans of The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s book. The premise of that book was sort of loosely adapted, along with just a lot of strange dreams… I think the genre really allows you to kind of take people to a sort of dream logic narrative. You’re not burdened with a sort of traditional, linear narrative, as long as it sort of makes sense in a way that your nightmares make sense..."
Visually, that “dream logic” is peppered throughout the footage with signature Verbinski-isms, such as a woman’s eye seen in extreme close-up through a magnifying glass in the foreground, while the character is still delivering dialogue in frame. Another intriguing observation is Verbinski’s thematic visual use of water. Whether it be rivulets of condensation, swimming pools, or steam; drinking it, spilling it, or bathing in it, water, in some form or another, is present in almost every shot. He also uses very Kubrickian composed frames—the camera lingers, holding moments with no hurry to cut away, offering the audience an opportunity to be completely immersed in the story.
This is something of an anomaly for modern studio output, a film that evokes the deliberate, atmospheric style of the ’70s over uninspired, modern genre tropes like jump scares, spoon-fed storylines, and hyperactive editing. Verbinski spoke a little about how this film, both mechanically and thematically, was different for him as well:
"Well, I think it’s different. Before, you know, when we were making movies, [it’s] different now a little bit. I think there’s a sort of general sickness. I think th[at] society is not well. And so when we first started making the movie, yeah, we were thinking about just the human condition, just the idea that we’re born, we go to school, we work and then we could get hit by a bus and like, what is it all for? And sort of playing with the idea that maybe that’s the illness itself. This place is really old. It’s been around for a long time and it’s watched mankind go through the Industrial Revolution and everything and now our obsession with our cell phones, and I think we’re ripe for diagnosis."
A Cure for Wellness opens in theaters on February 17th, 2017.
Synopsis: "An ambitious young executive is sent to retrieve his company's CEO from an idyllic but mysterious "wellness center" at a remote location in the Swiss Alps. He soon suspects that the spa's miraculous treatments are not what they seem. When he begins to unravel its terrifying secrets, his sanity is tested, as he finds himself diagnosed with the same curious illness that keeps all the guests here longing for the cure. From Gore Verbinski, the visionary director of THE RING, comes the new psychological thriller, A CURE FOR WELLNESS."
In case you missed it, check out Jason's War for the Planets of the Apes coverage from the 2017 20th Century Fox Showcase: