This film, directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Dane Dehaan and Jason Isaacs, has been labelled a horror movie. I didn’t really see it as such, and I would call it a fantasy/mystery. It’s also weird and quite atmospheric.
Dehaan plays a young business executive called Lockhart, who is ordered by his company to go to Switzerland and bring back a missing board member who the company wants in relation to some bookkeeping issues. (The conversation about this at the start of the movie implies that they might be setting him up to take the fall for a wider problem.) Lockhart, who is very ambitious and also keen to get out of trouble for some of his own dodgier activities, goes. The missing board member is undergoing treatment at a health ‘spa’, and Lockhart assumes this will be an easy matter. However he finds himself in a very odd and increasingly sinister situation, prevented from achieving his goal, and also prevented from leaving.
It’s a long movie (2 hours 26 minutes), and something of a slow burn, so you do need to be patient with it. The cinematography is superb, creating a gothic atmosphere that successfully mixes beauty with creepiness. The location shooting was a Castle Hohenzollern in Germany, which the film makers were allowed to restore in order to make the movie. It’s a great castle, a beautiful backdrop of mountains. The local village (also filmed in Germany) is a great medieval town, cobble stones and all. This contrasts with the interior shots of the supposed spa, which is curiously old-fashioned, as there is hydrotherapy, steam baths, saunas, drinking special water and so on. The hospital aspect is very clinical and sterile. Everything is white and metal. The theme throughout the film is of the decadence of the wealthy and powerful, and this aspect of filming adds to the theme by creating this aspect of beauty outside and deadness inside.
The acting is excellent. Dehaan plays the amoral corporate type to perfection. He is a young shark coming up against older sharks (the board) and showing he has what it takes to get ahead. Dehaan is very convincing in this role – I have seen him in other films and consider him to be excellent. He is ably supported by Jason Isaacs as the antagonist Dr Volmer, the head of the clinic who very soon is shown to be up to something rather odd (though it takes a while for the audience to find out what). Isaacs gives the exact combination of suaveness and creepiness required for the (not particularly original) medical person up to no good role. The third main character is Hannah, the only young person at the spa who is a patient. She is central to the mysterious goings-on and has been confined to the castle since she was quite young, and is therefore completely ignorant of the world outside. The actor Mia Goth is not someone I have previously come across, but she is very good in the part and I will be interested to see her in other films.
I liked the way the director built up the aspects of the story with hints and parallels. Eels seem to show up in water quite early on. We are not told what that is all about until near the end, but it adds to the uneasiness from very early in the film, as the idea of eels crawling over you while you’re submerged under water is not a comfortable one at all. Exposition from a minor character played by Celia Imbre gives the protagonist a history of the castle, and this too leads towards the ultimate conclusion. It adds to the theme of corruption and experimentation – the baron from two centuries previously marries his own sister to keep his bloodline pure, and it is rumoured he is experimenting to find a cure for her infertility. Scenes intercut to show parallels – for example Hannah walking into the pool intercuts with Lockhart walking down the stairs to the cellar, and both walks are towards information and discovery. The staff dancing in the ballroom is paralleled later by the patients dancing on the grass. The young and perfect staff are the doctor’s henchmen, so to speak, participants because they get something out of it too. And the patients? These rich people, who have conned and cheated others, are themselves conned and cheated by the clinic. In a sense, they get what they deserve.
I won’t give spoilers, but there is some justice to the comments about this movie that the ending was not as good as the beginning. I didn’t dislike it too much, but it was somewhat cliché. It is a solution I saw coming, and you probably would work this out quite early on if you watch it. It’s not a bad solution, but I suspect this film would have benefited from something a little more innovative. The climax, while exciting, is something you will have seen many times before.
Ultimately, however, “A cure for Wellness” is a trippy, moody, fantasy/psychological thriller film with a bit of body horror thrown in. Be patient, and you will be rewarded with something that is quite different from the usual run of film. Enjoy.