Atmospheric and visually breathtaking, the film is compelling and thought provoking.
From visionary director, Gore Verbinski, A Cure For Wellness is a chilling and mind-bending psychological thriller that explores the true meaning of wellness and the trappings of avarice and power, while asking what fulfillment really means.
Embarking on A Cure For Wellness, Verbinski wanted to make a thriller with the depth, insight and power of classics in the genre that he admired, such as The Shining (Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film), Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film) and Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 film).
In the tradition of Verbinski’s indelible 2002 classic, The Ring, the Academy Award winning filmmaker brings his inimitable style and vision to A Cure For Wellness, from a screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the story written by Haythe and Verbinski.
Dane DeHaan stars as Lockhart, a driven Wall Street stockbroker who is sent by his firm to a remote alpine medical spa. Lockhart is on a mission to retrieve the company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), a patient at the spa, who has told his staff that he has no intention of returning to New York.
Lockhart arrives at the tranquil sanitarium where the residents are supposedly receiving a miracle cure.
In fact though, they seem to be getting sicker.
As he investigates the dark and baffling secrets behind the spa, he meets a young woman, the hauntingly beautiful Hannah (Mia Goth), a patient herself.
He also gets to know another patient, the eccentric Mrs. Watkins, played by Celia Imrie, who has done some detective work of her own.
Soon, Lockhart is diagnosed with the same condition as the other patients by the institution’s director, the ominous Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), and finds that he is trapped in the alpine retreat.
Lockhart begins to lose his grip on reality and has to endure unimaginable ordeals during the course of his own ‘treatment’.
The idea of a quick fix cure, together with society’s malaise and the obsession with perfect health were topics that fascinated Verbinski, whose films include the hugely successful Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise and the Academy Award winning animated film, Rango.
“We started exploring the notion of a health spa in the Alps, a wellness center that doesn’t actually make you well,” says Verbinski, “and it slowly evolved from there. It became pretty clear to us that this was going to be a genre piece, and we started playing around with the concept of inevitability. It’s the sense that there is a sickness, a sort of black spot on your x-ray that won’t go away!”
Verbinski sat down with screenwriter Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, Revolutionary Road).
“I had an idea bouncing around in my head for some time from various influences and preoccupations, but it mostly came from a suspicion of medicine,” says Haythe, who was inspired by the work of German writer Thomas Mann and by psychiatrist Carl Jung. “The film really concerns the pollution of our minds and bodies in the modern world and our obsession with purity as a result of that.”
A superb storyteller and a master of pacing, Gore creates an unsettling, ominous atmosphere throughout A Cure For Wellness, immersing the audience in the world of the spa, where nothing is clear or straightforward. “Well it is interesting, because I think the more enigmatic you make something, particularly in this genre, the more you can employ a sort of dream logic,” says Verbinski.
“Things can remain enigmatic because you sense there’s some other force, something inevitable happening. To me, that’s the big tease—to try to make everything feel like there’s this sickness that’s not going away; it is pulling you. You are pointing the camera down the corridor and leading the protagonist towards his ultimate epiphany. Once you have that working, you don’t need to have so much exposition, explaining how things work. You just feel like this is all happening for a reason.”
The opportunity of working with Gore was a formidable draw for everyone involved in the film, from the cast to the production team. Justin Haythe describes the experience as a pleasure. “He’s the best! Gore is uncompromising,” says Haythe, “but only and always in pursuit of the best movie. Ego does not factor in. Design and sound have great power in this genre and Gore is a master of both.”
What Ails Us: Is The Cure Worse Than The Disease?
A Cure For Wellness is unsettling and utterly riveting, but it also contains insights into the purpose of life, looking at the way in which people often don’t take time to examine what they really want for themselves. “I think the movie is actually a comment on wellness,” says DeHaan.
“The ultimate question is: What is the sickness? Maybe the sickness is what happens when you give yourself over to ambition and selfish desires for wealth and wanting to advance in this world. I think it’s an interesting question to ask, especially in the world we live in today. Ultimately people want to be healthy and people want to be successful,” continues DeHaan.
“If it appears that those things could come quickly with just a simple treatment or a simple trick and that would make life easier, people want it. So I think that is why fad diets exist and different spa treatments that promise to make people better or cure them. But when you go in for those quick fixes, is that ultimately what you are being given? Probably not. Some people are so healthy it is unhealthy. And some people are so successful that it is detrimental to them as human beings, so I think it is about finding balance, and anytime that balance is thrown off, it can have the opposite effect that you want it to have.”
It’s a subject that Verbinski says is right at the heart of the movie. “I think that there’s a whole wellness industry preying upon us,” says Verbinski. “The patients at Volmer’s medical spa are confident that they are getting better, despite evidence to the contrary. The sanitarium is a place that heads of industry and oligarchs come to for a cure, people who do whatever they can to win at all costs,” comments the filmmaker.
“These are people who might be vulnerable to Dr. Volmer’s diagnosis, to being told: ‘you’re not well but there is a cure.’ But in fact it is all a great con, and it is the thing that keeps them there. We are exploring that sense of there being a sickness that we are all in denial of. It is perhaps the sickness of the modern man, if you will. We must at our core have a sense that something is not right, to battle the human condition.”
The film explores what it means to lead a life that is examined and meaningful. “We look at the universe; we look at the stars. We’re born onto a treadmill and then we could get hit by a bus and I think it’s interesting to say, wait, is that all it’s about? More than anything it’s saying: ask the question, what’s the point of it all? That is the existential crisis in its purest form. We are not providing the answer in this film, but we are saying: ‘maybe it’s time to pause, just take a moment.’”
The Psychology Of Fear
The evocative world created by Gore and his gifted team, the treatments that the patients undergo at Volmer’s spa, and the dramatic tension throughout the film, combine to create a gripping and terrifying cinematic experience. Like the best films in the genre, A Cure For Wellness leaves the audience unsettled and unnerved, questioning the darker side of human nature. It’s the kind of unease that lingers long after the closing credits have rolled.
“It’s like people telling ghost stories around a campfire,” says Verbinski, explaining why moviegoers enjoy watching an engrossing psychological thriller. “There’s something about a group of people, particularly strangers who are watching a film together, which creates that kind of powerful experience. It is not quite Schadenfreude because it’s not an overt enjoyment at somebody else’s demise, I would say, but for me the power of enigma is that if you don’t quite know what’s happening, you (the audience) let me inside your head. You know, when you’re eating pizza and everything’s great you’re going to forget about that meal right after you walk out of the cinema. We’re trying to give you a meal that you’re going to remember. But the process of not quite understanding something and leaning into it and trying to follow breadcrumbs, rather than a ‘hand on your back’ is quite a different kind of storytelling. You are asking: What is this all about? If I can get you nibbling breadcrumbs, that can do a lot more in terms of giving you something that’s going to stick with you.”
“It’s almost like a huge roller coaster, but the film is also asking a lot of important questions,” comments DeHaan. “At times, you are really feeling terrified. But if you are in a communal setting like a theater, you know you are safe and you know that what is happening on screen is completely removed from reality.”
“I just think this is an opportunity to watch a movie that is compelling but also frightening,” says DeHaan. “It’ll be a good time, and it’ll be fun, but it is also a movie that leaves an impression on you, and a movie that’ll shock you. I don’t even want to talk about it too much. You just have to go and see it. It is almost like a dare. I dare you to go and see the movie!”