In 1902, Dr. John Kellogg changed two letters in the word “sanatorium” — defined as a resting spot for disabled soldiers — and changed the world. “Sanitariums” became the health resort of choice for the wealthy and weary, instilling in the privileged a sense that they were perpetually ill, and that only expensive treatments could cure them. Among the most practiced of the treatments at Kellogg’s Battle Creek “San” was hydrotherapy. Kellogg had more than 200 ways to blast water on — and into — his patients, submerging them, dabbing them, steaming them, whatever. The city of Battle Creek was at first suspicious of this Seventh-day Adventist luring the rich to their farmland for these odd regimens, until Kellogg and his brother’s cereal company boomed, insulating the town and its employed laborers from the worst effects of the Great Depression.
But imagine if Kellogg and co. had instead exploited the town. Imagine if he’d had a sinister agenda and his quest for wellness was purely selfish or even diabolical. Sometimes–horror director–turned–Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski summons up that alternative reality with a Kellogg-like sanitarium castle sequestered in the Swiss Alps in A Cure for Wellness. The director conjures some chills with a cold plunge into an enchanting and frightful world — the imagery’s straight out of a Kubrick and Lynch nightmare — but the story unravels as he tries to overexplain his evil doctor’s devilish plot.
A Wall Street exec named Pembroke (Harry Groener) disappears on a two-week vacation, mailing cryptic letters back to coworkers about being “unwell” and finding a “cure.” Meanwhile, his 20-something successor, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), badly needs a scapegoat to hold the bag for SEC violations. The only thing that will save him is venturing to the remote resort and dragging the crazy old coot back to New York.
In Switzerland, Lockhart hires a car to crawl up the mountaintop. He’s told the man who built the place 200 years earlier had conducted experiments on the locals, and the ill will persists. On the mountaintop, Lockhart finds elite senior citizens clad in clean, cream-colored robes. They bat around a shuttlecock on the green lawn and nibble on health food when they’re not corralled into gorgeously tiled steam rooms and stately indoor pools seemingly inspired by Julia Morgan, the patron architect of the Art Deco era; Verbinski’s reteamed with Bojan Bazelli, his cinematographer from The Ring, who relishes in stunning wide shots the gleaming mint greens and baby blues.
The spa staff give Lockhart the runaround on his mission to find Pembroke. Then, on his way back to town, a buck darts into the road, sending the car into a ravine. Three days later, Lockhart wakes up in a cream robe himself and with a plaster cast on one leg. Resident doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs) advises him to drink plenty of the sanitarium’s pure healing waters, for which they’re famous. Any time a character chugs a glass of H2O, Verbinski’s close-ups on their mouths and throats turn the act of drinking into a tense dilemma — should they trust the doctor?
Verbinski’s a whole lot like Kellogg in that he has found a million ways to utilize water — only his uses are far more terrifying. Lockhart’s slowly driven mad by slithering eels that wriggle out of his toilet and into the giant metal deprivation tank the doctor’s ordered him into. When things get wet, Verbinski is inspired, letting the curiously creepy feeling of, say, watching a gaggle of elderly women paddle back and forth in a pool create tension. He juxtaposes the serene with the surreal: images of the eels and metaphysically menacing deer and shapeshifting rooms, which recall the disjointed images of random creepy party guests in Kubrick’s The Shining. The film’s style — up to a point — is also somewhat reminiscent of Lucile Hadzihalilovic's recent water-infused horror Evolution, but cleaner and brighter. And, ultimately, with less meaning and much more explication.
We’re led to believe that Lockhart’s been supernaturally called to this mysterious place to see what’s really important in life before Wall Street eats his soul like it did his father’s. But with the introduction of a mysterious and childlike young woman, Hannah (Mia Goth), who bicycles around the grounds like a bizarro Alice in Wellnessland, the story railroads Lockhart into becoming Prince Charming to save the damsel in distress from the doctor’s clutches. And we’re given endless backstory to get to that point, even though the “mystery” is plainly obvious.
As beautiful as it is to see this eldritch, virginal girl balancing barefoot on an old stone wall, backdropped by snow-capped peaks, her presence careens what starts out as a superbly chilling movie into a cheesy aristocratic melodrama that runs an interminable 146 minutes.
Writer Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, Revolutionary Road) somehow finds a way to fit in an attempted rape in a candlelit catacomb, where Hannah’s bodice is literally ripped away like she’s in a cheap romance novel. (A side note: Would a kind woman please explain to these men what a girl’s first period is actually like? I’d appreciate it.) This is a jarring transition from the abstract conceptual horror of the film’s first half. It seems Verbinski’s trying to pay homage to the likes Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff’s The Black Cat with his cartoonish ending. But in the end, this film’s premise just doesn’t hold water.