A Cure for WellnessMarch 29, 2017
For the first hour of Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, one feels dazzled by the stylishness of a New Age horror flick in which the world of high finance seems scarier than anything a mad doctor could dream up. But as this over-long story puffs its way to the finish line one pictures Verbinksi and his script-writer, Justin Haythe, spending their evenings watching old B-movies, looking for appropriate clichés to wind the damn thing up.
I never expected a work of timeless, cinematic genius from the man who gave us The Lone Ranger (2013) and three instalments of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it was still a little disappointing to find how easily the filmmakers let a promising scenario slide into mediocrity.
Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, an ambitious young hot-shot at a Wall Street finance firm, who is summoned before a truly ghastly Board of Directors and praised for his success, then bawled out for his underhand tactics. It’s not that the Board members object to anything underhand, they’re only pissed off because he wasn’t good enough at covering his tracks.
The booby prize is that Lockhart gets to travel to Switzerland to retrieve the big boss, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who is urgently required to sign the forms that will secure a multi-billion dollar merger. The missing CEO has just sent his colleagues a letter denouncing the sins of capitalism, claiming that he is a sick man who intends to stay at his remote sanitarium for an indefinite period.
Soon we’re in a chauffeur-driven car winding its way around hairpin bends, as Lockhart approaches the Volmer Institute. When he passes through a nearby village we learn there is bad blood between the locals and the people from the clinic. It’s shades of Nosferatu, in which the traveller discovers the villagers’ inexplicable distaste for Castle Dracula.
The hospital itself is every bit the creepy castle on top of a hill, but it’s full of affluent old-timers who run around the manicured courtyard playing croquet and proclaiming what a wonderful place it is. Needless to say, Lockhart fails in his objective of bringing Pembroke straight home. In fact he has an accident and finds himself a patient in the clinic, where they drink vast quantities of mineral water and take lots of baths. He also learns the secret history of the castle which involves a sinister Baron prone to every possible perversion.
None of this disturbs the current proprietor, the amiable Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs, with a whiff of a German accent), who is seen as a visionary by his patients. Lockhart is not convinced. His own treatment leads to terrifying hallucinations which might not be hallucinations. He becomes increasingly frustrated by the air of manic cheerfulness and high secrecy that co-exist at the clinic.
By this stage you may have stopped caring, worn out by Dane DeHaan’s perpetual grimace and twisted sneer. He looks more like a juvenile delinquent than a Wall Street go-getter.
When he meets an Ophelia-like waif named Hannah (Mia Goth), Lockhart wonders what a nice girl like her is doing in a place like this, surrounded by boring, wealthy oldies. Dr. Volmer says she’s “a special case”.
Lockhart realises that Hannah holds some sort of key to the mystery of the clinic, but there are so many mysteries popping up one struggles to keep track. What’s with the eels, for instance? We rarely go ten minutes without another eely encounter, but it’s hard to make eels seem as menacing as say, vampire bats.
Even though it may be perched on a peak in the Swiss Alps, we soon realise the Volmer Institute is just like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing any more about the plot, but it becomes so predictable it felt like a pub quiz on which old movie is being plundered in scene after scene. Marathon Man? The Abominable Dr. Phibes? Which Dracula film? Which Frankenstein?
Somewhere in this mix of Gothic horror; eels; stylish camera angles; gorgeous sets and lighting; eels; film trivia; weird robotic nurses; eels; grim-faced peasants; and arched eyebrows, one gets a dim inkling that Verbinski might be sending us a message about the evil decadence of the world of high finance. The Volmer Institute is not only Castle Dracula it seems to be a retirement home for veterans of the Davos Economic Forum.
There are numerous horror films in which teenagers that engage in hanky-panky get hacked to bits by a mad axe murderer. A Cure for Wellness inhabits an equally sophisticated moral universe. Only this time the victims are elderly capitalists who have spent their lives accumulating vast business empires, only to be subjected to grisly ordeals in an Alpine health resort. The sicker they become, the more enthusiastic they are about the treatment. They are being slowly murdered but they feel great. Isn’t that just a fate for those who keep acquiring wealth while their souls decay? I doubt that any merchant banker in the audience will be breaking into a cold sweat.
A Cure For Wellness
Directed by Gore Verbinksi
Written by Justin Haythe
Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie, Ivo Nandi, Harry Groener, Adrian Schiller
Germany/USA, rated MA15+ , 146 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th March, 2017.