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‘A Cure for Wellness’ Was Way Too Weird to Succeed

But its box-office performance is the least interesting thing about it

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

When a two-and-a-half-hour, hard-R-rated horror movie set in Switzerland tanks at the box office, is it reasonable to suggest that it underperformed? Did 20th Century Fox screw up by circulating fake news stories as a viral marketing strategy for a film that features a historically lopsided ratio of computer-generated eels (several hundred) to recognizable movie stars (zero)? And did anybody, including the producers who signed off on its reported $40 million budget, really expect A Cure for Wellness to end up as anything other than a cautionary industry tale — the kind you tell at night around the campfire to spook studio executives?

The answers to these questions are, in order: “no,” “probably,” and “who cares?” The least interesting thing about A Cure for Wellness is whether not it will offer its financiers any sort of return on investment. “If [filmmaking] becomes some sort of financial equation, it’s just not appealing,” explained director Gore Verbinski during a podcast interview with The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey, sounding very much like a man who has previously earned the right to spend a multinational corporation’s money on a project whose icky particulars would likely send focus groups scuttling out of the screening room.

Of all the directors who’ve ever overseen a billion-dollar franchise, Verbinski, who helmed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies before ceding the floor to a couple of Jerry Bruckheimer–hired guns, might rival Tim Burton as the most eccentric. But for all those two directors have in common — including a shared fondness for wisecracking skeletons and joint custody of Johnny Depp in shameless overactor mode — the difference between them is while Burton almost always caves to some kind of crowd-pleasing impulse, Verbinski isn’t afraid to keep it weird rather than whimsical.

“Weird” is definitely the operative word in A Cure for Wellness, which evokes turn-of-the-century pulp fiction — the kind published in Weird Tales — without ever turning into a fully Lovecraft-ed homage, à la John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. Instead, Justin Haythe’s script draws narrative inspiration from Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain (about a tubercular young man seeking relief in an alpine spa), as well as visual and thematic ideas carried over from Verbinski’s other films, from the aquatic imagery of the Pirates series and The Ring, to his underlying (and maybe even unhealthy) obsession with Chinatown. Polanski’s classic was paid affectionate, if incongruous, homage in Verbinski’s animated Western Rango, but its influence manifests here in a much darker and more diabolical way.

Like Chinatown, A Cure for Wellness is about the relationship between water and power, and how controlling one gives you unchecked access to the other; in both films, the men with their fingers on the faucet are monsters. A Cure for Wellness is set in a sanitarium built atop a mountain aquifer whose waters have restorative powers. Such promises of restoration have made the Volmer Institute the go-to destination for physically and spiritually ailing souls like Fortune 500 CEO Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), who decamps to Switzerland with his company on the verge of a massive merger. The task of retrieving him falls to Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious and ethically suspect young executive who envisions his journey overseas and up the mountain peak as a version of climbing the corporate ladder, even as the filmmaking makes it palpable that it’s a trap. A brilliantly composed shot of a high-speed train reflecting the alpine landscape along its mirrored exterior before disappearing into a pitch-black tunnel hints at the character’s true trajectory.

As shot by the great Montenegrin director of photography Bojan Bazelli — who is probably the only cinematographer to work with Abel Ferrara and Mariah Carey — A Cure for Wellness is genuinely spectrally beautiful, with the camera serenely gliding through the Volmer Institute’s immaculate interiors and descending into the depths of its sensory deprivation tanks — one of which Lockhart ends up occupying for a few hallucinatory moments after a car accident just outside the entrance transforms him from a visitor to a patient.

The setup of a sane man driven slowly mad by the belief that his new, innocuous surroundings house some unspeakable evil is pure Lovecraft, and DeHaan, who looks like a naughtily malign Topher Grace, is quite funny in a role that transforms him into a live-action version of the guy from Operation. He keeps getting poked, prodded, intubated, and drilled, all while gulping down as much of the locally sourced water as Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) can prescribe.

Lockhart’s comically extreme vulnerability makes him a perfect match for Hannah (Mia Goth), a fetchingly emaciated waif who throws poses around the property like she’s auditioning for one of Alan Moore’s softcore-mythological graphic novels. Which is actually not too far away from where A Cure for Wellness ends up, tonally speaking: It’s hard to recall the last time a major Hollywood release thrashed away so madly at social and biological taboos. The manga-inspired audacity of Verbinski and Bazelli’s underwater imagery — an aquamarine menagerie of naked bodies, undulating anguilliformes, and clouds of deep-crimson blood — is matched by the script’s gutsy tastelessness. And the predictability of the story’s direction is offset by the fact that it really and truly goes there, and with enough authentically Gothic gusto to alienate anybody who refuses to get on its wavelength. (The final shot confirms the delirious excess of the entire enterprise, sealing the proceedings with a maniacal smile.)

“That’s just the toxins being expelled from the body,” Dr. Volmer reassures Lockhart on several occasions, and while A Cure for Wellness critiques the incestuous quest for purity as its own form of corruption — another connection to Chinatown — Verbinski’s refusal to distill his bizarre vision for mass consumption is a healthy sign even if it means his movie is dead on arrival.