Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness is an assertive push on the filmmaker’s part to enter the pantheon of visionary directors who’ve commanded swollen budgets while thrusting idiosyncratic visions and big ideas onto the screen. If Verbinski’s prior work flashed real visual intelligence and imagination, this is the film that flaunts it. And like many past examples of studio stalwarts bidding for high-art status, Verbinski wears his influences on his sleeve—among them Kubrick, Jodorowsky, World on a Wire, The Hourglass Sanatorium, even Salo. Such ambition should spike the curiosity of any cinephile with a pulse, and that A Cure for Wellness is ultimately more conventional than any of its points of inspiration doesn’t diminish the fact that Verbinski has managed to bring such visual panache to multiplexes in the first place.
The film begins in a Draconian pastiche of the modern corporate world, where Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) works as a ladder-climbing entrepreneur for an unspecified business empire in New York City. Talk of a paradigm-shifting corporate merger fills the menacing dead air of the film’s opening sequences, when we learn that Lockhart has been elected to retrieve the company’s CEO, Mr. Pembroke, from the Swiss mountain spa to which he’s fled, and usher him back to the United States to begin business dealings. The story then smash cuts to the Alps—in rousing fashion, with Verbinski’s camera rigged to the side of a high-speed train lurching out of a cliffside tunnel into the mountain air—and will never return from its eventual destination, except for in patchy flashbacks to the scene of Lockhart’s defining (and rote) childhood trauma: his father hurling himself to death off a New York bridge.
As the aforementioned shot attests, Verbinski has a flair for introductions, and the subsequent scene that takes Lockhart to Pembroke’s wellness retreat is even niftier in its approach. The walled-in driveway leading up to the summit on which the resort is perched winds upward like a long circular coil, leaving Lockhart with only partial views of the palatial estate as he cranes his neck from the backseat of a cab whose driver provides the first of many vague encapsulations of the grounds’ “dark history.” It’s a familiar horror-movie scenario, with the fish-out-of-water protagonist being fed shady exposition while registering the first stirrings of something being “off.” But it’s one in which Verbinski finds a kinetic analogue to his hero’s mental state, with the distinct sensation of the spins reflecting the magnetic pull of the resort itself.
What ensues is a prolonged exercise in convoluted suspense whereby Lockhart assumes the position of audience surrogate while intimations of the spa’s history of malignance increasingly materialize. A series of sequences in which Lockhart, impaired by a cast and crutches after surviving a collision with a deer during a getaway attempt, limps through boundless corridors and shape-shifting steam rooms offers a bounty of amazing set design and compositional symmetry, and it helps that Verbinski can genuinely direct a scene around his ostentatious set pieces. The most arresting example of this proficiency finds Lockhart sealed inside a souped-up sensory-deprivation tank while the watchman tasked with monitoring his vital signs pleasures himself to a fellow female employee’s illicit come-on in the other room; the scene’s deftly timed punchline is the inconvenient synchronicity of the guard’s climax and the cautionary whining of the EKG.
Verbinski excels at such disorienting crosscuts (the film’s literally hell-raising climax juxtaposes ghastly happenings in the spa’s basement with jubilant festivities in the ballroom above), and in a larger sense, A Cure for Wellness thrives on a collision of tones. The immaculate cosmetics of the wellness retreat itself, from the prudently manicured foliage to everyone’s spotless white uniforms, contrast with an alarming emphasis on creepy-crawly body horror. There’s enough sickly exposed white flesh on display throughout the film—often submerged in water filled with man-eating eels—to make Ulrich Seidl blush, while one bit of dental treatment/torture administered to Lockhart produces a retina-searing image worthy of early Cronenberg.
Alongside all this phantasmagoria, and further augmenting the dissonant effect, is Hannah (Mia Goth), a “special case” at the resort to whom Lockhart develops an interest somewhere between anthropological curiosity and romantic attraction. On the one hand, Hannah, the daughter of the icy mastermind behind the entire operation (Jason Isaacs), is conceived as faux-naif horror archetype, creepily humming melodies and affecting mile-long stares. On the other, Goth brings fragile warmth to the role, complementing DeHaan’s tetchy intensity, a byproduct of personal tragedy, with a more deep-seated, subconscious awareness of her own developmental malfunctioning.
The nature of Hannah’s affliction, and that of all the patients at her father’s foul human lab, turns out to be predictably unspeakable (prepare yourself for the unavoidable think pieces that will focus on the film in relation to the recent mainstreaming of white supremacy). But more gratifying than the film’s muddled conglomeration of themes is the moment-to-moment anticipation of where Verbinski will put his camera next, be it right up in the mirrored eye of a taxidermied deer or under the surface of a pool swimming with period blood and snake-like water carnivores. A Cure for Wellness demonstrates a studio’s glut of resources being gifted to a director more than capable of playfully exploiting them without the baggage of franchise expansion, and if not quite visionary, it is something rare nowadays.