Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness is an assault on the senses. It is impossible to ignore the rich and often brilliant cinematography, the Byzantine story and the extreme running time. Verbinski forces the audience through the same program that Dane DeHaan's Lockhart endures: extreme excess followed by disgust and exhaustion. By film's end, Lockhart is transformed by the experience. I'm not sure if the same can be said for the audience. Below, we will examine this regimen and see if it is possible to find some sense in this brash cacophony. Spoilers throughout.
No one can say that director Gore Verbinski did not imprint every scene and shot with style. He lifts ordinary exchanges of dialogue to grand heights by blocking them around a mirror-finish cistern with an expansive view of the Swiss Alps. Character entrances are revealed in the reflection of stuffed deer's eyes. DeHaan's mother ominously predicts "you'll never come back" while the camera stares up at a Dutch angle, her eye bulging through a magnifying glass.
Every shot is meticulously framed and composed. The color choices and extensive color timing combined with these frames produce a visual delight in an Andersonian mold. Every scene is painterly and gorgeous to watch. Verbinski juxtaposes the beauty of his filmmaking with crudeness and insanity of the story.
The plot is a cinematic gourmand's feast. After a brief set up in high finance New York, the story quickly moves to the Swiss Alps with Dane DeHaan's Lockhart on a single-minded mission to find his Kurtz, Harry Groener's Pembroke, in the heart of Dr. Heinreich Volmer's (Jason Isaacs) baroque wellness center and return him to complete an important merger. DeHaan has enough time on the train to suitably impart that he is a business school frat boy with compulsions verging on the obsessive, popping Nicorette and juggling a cell phone while maniacally adjusting numbers in a spreadsheet, before learning the sordid past of Château Volmer.
Centuries ago, the original baronial landlord tried to marry his sister to preserve a pure bloodline. Outraged peasants razed the property and burned the sister alive, removing her unborn daughter and throwing her into the aquifer. The castle has been rebuilt over the aquifer and is home to Dr. Volmer and his staff who administer a mysterious treatment using the restorative properties of the spring water. Lockhart fails to retrieve Pembroke and is, utterly predictably, waylaid and becomes an unwilling patient. He is admitted to fix his dubiously broken leg while the staff try to convince him that he is deeply sick and in need of Herr Volmer's "cure".
Bear in mind that this all happens in the first thirty minutes, the amuse-bouche, of this two and half hour banquet. The plot takes detours through the crossword puzzle sleuthing of one of the more suspicious patients, Lockhart's meandering down endless hallways in Volmer's facility, some color from the local townsfolk, a toilet handle that won't stop jiggling†, several scenes of Lockhart getting to know the mysterious and ethereal Hannah, played by Mia Goth, and a sensory deprivation tank full of eels.
The eel tank deserves some additional attention. Lockhart is lowered into a massive tank for sensory deprivation treatment while submerged under forty feet of water. Verbinski carefully frames DeHaan's pale body on the pitch black of the tank as the water begins to rise and bubbles form from the respirator obscuring DeHaan's face. While Lockhart begins to flash back to memories of his father's suicide, a nurse emerges and partially disrobes to distract the on-duty technician. Dozens of eels appear and Lockhart panics, unsuccessfully attempting to escape before blacking out. His body slowly sinks back into the swirling mass of eels. Every moment of this scene is beautifully realized, but really consider what is happening. DeHaan is wrought, sick with guilt and depression over his father's suicide, and then is engulfed by vicious eels. While he suffers in the tank, the technician furiously masturbates in front of the nurse. This is merely one example of the lengths A Cure for Wellness goes to plunge the audience into the depths with Lockhart and the rest of Volmer's patients.
DeHaan very ably shoulders the burdens of making us believe he is a prick who's only out for himself and handles his turn into a broken man trying to save himself and Hannah very well. His one-and-a-half note performance against Goth's floaty Hannah and Jason Isaac's sinisterly friendly Volmer make up the bulk of the film and they are more than capable of holding things together along with a decent supporting cast of various helpers and townsfolk.
So much stylistic and narrative excess leads to an overwhelming feeling of disgust. During the final third of the film, a feeling of tightness had entered my chest and my stomach. It was literally hard to watch Verbinski put these characters through so much physical and mental torture.
While plumbing the depths of Volmer's Gothic Road to Wellville, Lockhart is caught by Volmer. Explaining that he was having some dental problems (he literally pulled his tooth out minutes before), Volmer insists on an extensive examination without anesthetic, leading to a close up shot of a drill destroying one of Lockhart's front teeth. Lockhart eventually escapes the Marathon Man treatment and returns to the town to find help. After alerting the local authorities, he discovers that the chief of police is in league with Volmer and is returned to the facility. Lockhart knows he is being driven insane and there is very little he can do about it. If DaHaan has one go-to expression throughout the film it is disgust. How can he not, given the horrors he has and will continue to see?
The film's climax includes two deeply disturbing physical violations. Lockhart finally learns Volmer's secret—he is the baron from the distant past, kept alive by murdering patients to distill the essence of the eels into a youth serum—after which Volmer forces a large tube down Lockhart's throat and into his stomach, pumping a gallon of sewer water and infant eels into his body. My eyes are tearing up just typing this, it disturbed me so deeply.
Verbinski saves the worst cruelty for the finale, though. Hannah is revealed to be Volmer's daughter, kept young through the centuries by the serum, and, having finally had her period, Volmer intends to marry her and use her to have the pure-breed children that were taken from him. The scene is not easy to watch. Mercifully, a weak but defiant Lockhart breaks things up before Volmer can consummate the act, setting the place ablaze while Hannah crushes her father's head (unmasked to reveal a repulsive mess variously scarred by burns and eel-like), pushing him into the aquifer to be devoured by eels as the château burns to the ground once more.
Leaving the theater, I felt no sense of relief. The visual and narrative assault having finally abated, and DeHaan and Goth's characters riding off both literally and figuratively, I expected to feel catharsis. And Verbinksi no doubt expected it as well, after having put his characters, and us, through this experience.
I expected to feel angrier at having been subjected to the explicit and troubling rape scene. I expected to feel more invested in the future for Lockhart and Hannah. I expected to be more exasperated by the utterly bizarre story. I expected to have a stronger opinion, good or bad. But, truthfully, I felt nothing but exhaustion and emptiness.
Other films have a similar narrative arc and deliver as much, and more, excess and torture (Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream and Laugier's Martyrs come to mind). But those films had a reason for their cruelty. Their torture was not mindless but in service to stories of transformation, the watching of which transformed the viewer. You are not the same person after watching Requiem for a Dream or Martyrs that you were before.
Am I different person for having seen A Cure for Wellness? What did I get for watching Dane DeHaan's front tooth drilled without anesthesia and a scene of attempted paternal rape? Some interesting visual ideas and able filmmaking perhaps, but, in truth, all I got was two and a half hours older. And I will never be able to look at a jiggling toilet handle the same way again.
† It was eels, by the way, in case you were wondering.