A Cure for Wellness clocks in at 146 minutes long, and writer-director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger) and his co-writer Justin Haythe cram every one of those minutes with pure, undiluted silliness. Then they douse them in kerosene and light them on fire.
That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. (It’s not really to say it’s a good movie, either.) A Cure for Wellness is so bonkers that a thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation seems beside the point. It’s the sort of movie that can only be described by talking about other things: It’s like Crimson Peak meets Mr. Robot meets Shutter Island meets The Phantom of the Opera meets Gaslight.
It is a thoroughly distracting film, entertaining a lot of the time, and ambitious in the way studio movies rarely get to be. So in its own way, A Cure for Wellness is an accomplishment. But it’s also a bewildering viewing experience, one best undertaken armed with a bit of knowledge regarding gothic horror antecedents and strong commitment to rattling your psyche and grossing you out. A road map aids in navigating it with care.
So here is a guide to the five stages of watching A Cure for Wellness.
Stage 1: curiosity
The very first scene of A Cure for Wellness could have been ripped straight from Mr. Robot: A man who’s alone in a big office at night suddenly keels over and dies.
The action moves quickly from there: Shortly thereafter, ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is called into a meeting with the board of the corporation he works for. He’s more or less blackmailed into traveling to Switzerland to locate the company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who has disappeared to a spa in the Alps and gone incommunicado. They need Pembroke back to complete a merger.
On his way up the mountain, Lockhart, in talking to his driver, learns the unsurprising fact that the people in the town pretty much hate “the people on the hill,” a.k.a. the occupants of the spa, which is housed in a castle once owned by a baron who was the subject of terrible rumors many centuries ago.
This setup — the young man traveling to a literal castle in Switzerland (actually filmed in Germany) to quickly find and bring home his boss — is obviously not headed for straightforward resolution, a fact underlined by all the strange things Lockhart hears and sees during his journey to the spa, and upon arrival. The uncannily calm and sunny facility contrasts sharply with the dirty village down the hill. It looks more like an asylum from a century ago than a cushy spa.
So it’s a good wind-up for a mystery, and at this point, it seems a mystery is exactly what’s unfolding. Our curiosity teased, the film moves on to the second stage.
Stage 2: confusion
Something’s very weird about the place, of course, and it’s not just the anachronistic surroundings. Every patient is old, for starters — except an otherworldly young girl named Hannah (Mia Goth). (The attendants are all young and attractive.) All the old people were once high-powered executives at major corporations. Everyone’s clothed in white garments all the time.
Hannah has been there forever, left by her parents because of her vague “sickness,” to be cared for by the head doctor, Volmer (Jason Isaacs), a handsome and soothing man. Every patient drinks copious amounts of the local water, which the spa staff claims has nearly magical healing properties, and participates in various hydrotherapies for “the sickness.” They’re at the castle for “the cure.” (The nature of the cure is uncertain: “Purity Before Wellness,” a motto on a sign reads.)
Lockhart hoped to be in and out the door quickly, but Pembroke is not at all ready to go. When Lockhart eventually insists on leaving, his car is involved in a mysterious accident on the way down the hill, and he’s checked into the spa to tend to his broken leg.
Stage 3: grossed-out disgust
Finally agreeing to submit to the cure — whatever it may be — Lockhart finds himself in a sensory deprivation tank, connected to an oxygen tube. The dour male attendant tells him to just relax as the tank fills with water. But as that attendant is distracted by a female one (who unbuttons her top as he unzips his pants), the tank Lockhart is floating in fills, suddenly, with eels.
Actually, there are a lot of eels in this movie. They keep popping up in places where people would be vulnerable, especially in the vicinity of their nether regions: toilets, ponds, places like that. The eels are obviously a symbol, as is the water, and the residents’ white clothing, and, as it turns out, lots of other things in the film.
Most of the symbols trace back to one of two things: an obsession with purity (especially purity of blood and of bloodlines) and an interest in the things that invade or invalidate that purity. The baron, for instance, was hated by the villagers because of rumors of incestuous relations with his sister in an attempt to keep his bloodline pure.
Incest is a classic trope in gothic horror stories — and gothic horror is really the core genre of A Cure for Wellness, even though the film has been wrapped in the packaging of a thriller and advertised as such. Gothic horror (think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rebecca, or Crimson Peak) is all about mixing and contrasting the beautiful and damnable, the soothing and horrifying, the pure and the profane, to leave us both cringing and transported, unable to look away and not really wanting to either.
A Cure for Wellness has no qualms about following this template by leaning into its gross-out factor; it is not a film for the faint of heart. But its imagery is also its most compelling feature, and it’s awfully hard to resist the pull of its squicky, morbid fascination.
Stage 4: disbelief
We’ve reached the juncture of this review where it’s wise to cease giving away plot details. But plot also essentially stops mattering around the film’s midpoint, ceding ground to an ever-nuttier parade of set pieces that seem set on a spiral plunge into batshittery.
I watched the last half-hour or so of A Cure for Wellness with my hands clasped over my slightly agape mouth, not quite sure what was happening. It’s overstuffed, and could easily have ended at least a half-hour earlier; it would have come off as a kind of morality fable about the perils of modern workaholism.
But then it would not be A Cure for Wellness. And the choice to let the tale keep spinning past a more obvious conclusion is revealing. When a movie ups the ante visually and narratively at every opportunity, it’s no longer striving for coherence or scintillating social critique — it’s trying to evoke something emotional in the audience. It’s trying to overstimulate our imaginations, to make us feel things in our guts. It’s not about stories or ideas anymore, but about a swelling hurricane of the feels.
Few big-scale studio movies have the gumption to try this sort of tactic outside of action movies, which pile on the explosions to evoke a similar effect. But what is that effect?
It’s catharsis: the feeling of being revved all the way to 11, then allowed to return to normal, and the feeling of visceral relief. In bombastic gothic horror, the goal is the same, but instead of achieving it through explosions (though there’s plenty of fire), the genre relies on your counterintuitively delicious disgust. After A Cure for Wellness, your weird relationship problems and frustrating medical difficulties will seem pretty mild.
Stage 5: raving insanity
This is the part that happens on the way out of the theater, when you turn to your friend and ask, “What the hell did we just see?”
A Cure for Wellness is not interested in comfort or predictability. Nor does it slink out of the unconscious peacefully.
Why? The aforementioned cathartic disgust is part of it. But A Cure for Wellness also taps into the uncanny, in the Freudian sense: It seems familiar, but also incongruous. Sure, it’s set in a castle, and the story heads off in distinctly gothic directions. But it opens in a bleak 21st-century, soul-sucking, corporate New York. And when, in one scene, Lockhart and Hannah sneak off to the village, they find themselves among a bunch of skinheads and punks straight out of the 1990s. The movie follows a kind of dream logic — things are next to each other because they seem linked by some unconscious rule, not because they logically follow one another.
Uncanniness provokes cognitive dissonance. Our minds are left turning what we saw and experienced over and over, without any resolution. There isn’t really a message in A Cure for Wellness (even though it briefly fakes us out on that point). Audience members looking to resolve the film’s various mysteries will be disappointed. There isn’t one.
If that means your previously peaceful sleep is interrupted as you wake up in the middle of the night dreaming of eels and dungeons, well, that’s kind of the point. It’s right in the title. In place of wellness, A Cure for Wellness offers weirdness and discomfort.
That a movie can do that is remarkable. Whether you want the movie to do that is up to you.
A Cure for Wellness opens in theaters on February 17.