One of the primary criticisms directed towards A Cure for Wellness, Gore Verbinski’s waterlogged nightmare, is that it’s “overlong.” It’s an understandable reaction to a film that stretches out a familiar storyline – a mysterious “wellness retreat”, favoured by billionaires, that’s more of a prison than sanctuary – across two and a half hours. Undoubtedly, this could’ve been a shorter, tighter film, condensed into a trim 100 minutes or so. That film would have been more accessible and, perhaps, more successful – earning less than half its budget at the US box office, Wellness is a bona fide bomb.
But I’d argue that the film’s pacing – deliberate, distancing, drawn-out – is what makes it more than a curio, more than an eel-infested homage to gothic horror. Take the car crash that occurs early in the piece. Stockbroker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is being chauffeured down the Swiss Alps, away from said wellness retreat. Lockhart’s not interested in the croquet or water therapy enjoyed by the retreat’s wealthy, white-haired patients; he’s there to bring home his firm’s CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), who’s forsaken his responsibilities to the firm’s board with a mysterious letter.
Having been given the high hat by the retreat’s doctors and nurses, Lockhart intends to find accommodation elsewhere before returning in the morning. Of course, we know what sort of movie this is; we know he can’t leave, not yet. So it’s not a surprise when a deer thunders into frame to precipitate an ostentatious accident. Rather than play it as a surprise – as, say, Jordan Peele does with a similar scene in Get Out – Verbinski instead allows his camera to calmly survey the stag’s stride as it gallops towards Lockhart’s vehicle. The accident plays with dreamlike surety rather than as a jarring shock, and thus presages the director’s unconventional approach to the material.
Lockhart awakens, three days later, with a broken leg and a foggy mind. He’s informed by the centre’s director, Dr Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), that his firm has been informed of the accident and just want him to get some rest. It’s a ludicrous assertion – Lockhart has no reason to trust the director; in fact, far from it – but it’s accepted without resistance.
A different director might rush past these scenes, allowing the mounting mystery to obscure any shaky plotting. Yet Verbinski treasures Justin Haythe’s misshapen screenplay. He luxuriates in the absurd illogic of it all. Important exposition is offered up as dry speculation by a crossword-obsessed patient (Celia Imrie). Lockhart, slimy yet sympathetic (thanks to DeHaan’s wonderfully off-kilter, almost-alien performance), is drawn deeper into Volmer’s web despite vociferously questioning his practices at every turn. The twists lurking in the film’s deep waters are foreshadowed heavily and relentlessly. It’s as though we’ve been abandoned in the middle of the ocean, and Verbinski is content to let us tire ourselves out rather than pushing our head underwater.
This approach’s primary result is to de-emphasise the text – the particulars of the creepy spa, the purpose of all those eels – in favour of the subtext. A Cure for Wellness is transformed from old-fashioned gothic horror to a dry social satire. Something more akin to The Lobster than The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. But it’s in this department that I was hoping for more from the film. I can forgive minor mistakes in plotting – for instance, the cyclical (or, more accurately, repetitive) way in which Lockhart embraces and rejects the centre’s promises – if the allegorical substance was more, well, substantive.
The thrust of Verbinski and Haythe’s argument boils down to the idea that contemporary neoliberal capitalism is repackaged feudalism; we’re all peasants toiling away to fatten the greedy oligarchs towering over us. This isn’t a nuanced read on my part or anything; when the extent of Isaacs’ true villainy is revealed in the third act (really, Lucius Malfoy is playing a bad guy?), he practically spells out the theme to us audience members. It’s a compelling thesis, I suppose, but it never quite resonates in the way I hoped it would. In particular, its central conceit – of rich leaders of industry preyed upon by Swiss weirdos – seems to clash with its underlying premise. How, precisely, are über-wealthy CEOs victims of modern capitalism? That’s a question with plenty of good answers, but few that Verbinski is interested in exploring.
The softness of the subtext leaves A Cure for Wellness suspended in an odd abyss: neither entirely successful as a creepy, slow-burn horror, nor as the social satire it seems to strive towards. Its pleasures are largely aesthetic, whether it’s the way Verbinski’s camera caresses his sets and objects with voyeuristic proximity, or how DeHaan somehow makes his detestable character sympathetic. Ultimately, I think the film is probably a failure, but its unnerving atmosphere is enduring enough to make it a failure worth consuming.