DIR: Gore Verbinski • WRI: Justin Haythe • PRO: Arnon Milchan, Gore Verbinksi, David Crockett • DOP: Bojan Bazelli • ED: Lance Pereira, Pete Beaudreau • DES: Michael Corenblith • MUS: Benjamin Wallfisch • CAST: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Harry Groener
Following the death of a man named Morris, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious young executive for a New York financial company, is sent to a mysterious and remote wellness centre in the Swiss Alps to retrieve the CEO of the company, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener). Pembroke’s retreat to the centre has coincided with the Board’s attempts to sign off on a company merger contract, and his lengthy absence – paired with a manic letter – has caused concern for his associates. Travelling through the Alps, Lockhart’s driver grants a brief history of the building which has become the wellness centre, telling the executive the myth of the Baron who, desperate to facilitate a pure bloodline, married his own sister. The Baron and his bride were later burned alive by the peasants who the Baron had been experimenting on in the hopes of finding a cure for his wife/sister’s sickness. Slightly shaken by the story, Lockhart is already wary of the centre upon his arrival, and an unusually tense meeting with the director, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) only heightens his suspicions further. Aware that the centre’s miraculous facilities are not what they seem, Lockhart convinces Pembroke to return to New York with him as soon as possible. However, a car accident results in Lockhart waking up days later in the centre. His leg in a cast and consigned to crutches, Lockhart finds himself a patient in the very facility he was trying to get away from. It is only after speaking with Hannah (Mia Goth), Volmer’s “special case” that the true sinister actions of the facility, and of the director’s own hunt for a cure, begin to come to light.
Setting the action against the backdrop of an ambiguous location in the Swiss Alps, A Cure for Wellness makes the most of the mythologisation of rural Europe as a retreat from modernity, as a place wealthy in history and frozen in time, quaint yet sinister, creating an uncanny arena in which to place the American lead. The film plays the picturesque landscape of Europe (shooting took place mainly in Germany) against the built-up metropolis of Manhattan shown in the opening scenes, forging an important contrast between the world of artificial lighting, late nights and corporate drive, and an isolated mountain village shrouded in history, idleness and mythology. With this contrast, paired with the connotations that have become innate to the cinematic cues of gated estates and secretive towns, A Cure for Wellness pitches that a location removed from American modernity is a paramount condition for such a psychologically ominous event to take place. Reminiscent of the off-shore location of Shutter Island, the use of a remote institution with an unsavoury history creates a liminal space that toes the line between fantasy and reality, the perfect backdrop upon which to lay a sequence of doubt, mystery and sinister experimentation.
Though DeHaan’s performance is notable, the character he is playing is conventional – a critique which is not wholly negative, but that stands to illustrate the way in which A Cure for Wellness further operates within the formula of cinematic convention. While a push against self-insert female characters has been a wide talking point, the self-insert male character – what I like to refer to as the “Manly-Sue” – often slides through the box-office relatively unscathed. In other words, Lockhart, an ambitious white man who is placed out of his comfort zone in his attempts to solve a mystery, is someone we have met before. The use of the Manly-Sue in films such as this is common because, due to socialised understandings and conditioned hierarchies of race and gender, a white male character is seen as default. In this vein, there is little need to spend time on identity politics, as a Manly-Sue often does not have to establish personhood before giving an opinion or living an experience, and as a result the story can roll from the get-go.
This reliance on dominant identities as default is also the catalyst for the film’s philosophical musings on power and control to become flimsy. Pembroke’s letter (and his later conversation with Lockhart) speaks of an ambiguous social unease, and he appears to express a fear of ruthless capitalism and hegemonic power overtaking the human soul. This revelation loses its weight somewhat once we consider the already recognised forms of systemic oppression embedded in almost all aspects of society. These oppressions are primary concerns for the people which they effect, and, as a result, many are already well aware of the downsides of capitalism, the pressures of power and control, and the corporatisation of the self. Hearing these words from the mouth of a dominant figure in society – a rich, white man – fails to have the heavy impact the film may be reaching for; many aware of the dark side of humanity and it is often the least oppressed who are last and most astonished to realise it. In this same vein, the mystique surrounding the concept of “wellness” which patients seek to be cured of is dulled slightly. The notion of a cure for those who don’t seem to need one relates to familiar form of capitalist advertising in which companies offer products as solutions to problems created by the companies in order to sell the products. Lockhart’s initial unease in the centre appears to stem from the fact that other patients seem to be completely focused on relaxation, framing a lack of productivity as detrimental. It is only once he unearths the processes behind the centre that he can relate it back to an overt corporate frame and understand the facility’s own scale of production.
A Cure for Wellness is a visually crisp and clean thriller. Care is taken to emphasise uniformity, from the glowing screens of glass high-rise buildings to the clean cold tiles of the wellness centre in the Alps. This uniformity provides the foundations for an ominous and twisted unfolding of events, making it an aesthetic pleasure to view. Whether the attempt at an over-arching message pushes the film beyond this status as a thriller which is visually stunning yet expectedly conventional is up for debate, but it is an intriguing and entertaining view none-the-less.
Sadhbh Ní Bhroin
16 See IFCO for details
A Cure for Wellness is released 24th February 2017
A Cure for Wellness – Official Website