There are a ton of dicks in A Cure for Wellness. Not like actual dicks, but implied dicks. This movie is a psych major’s dream when it comes to phallic imagery. Obviously, there are the eels that feature prominently throughout the film, but there’s also dental drills, medical droppers, cigarettes, long gothic candles, and a big German woman shaving a carrot. This is just the stuff I remember off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty more hidden dicks that I’m forgetting.
A Cure for Wellness was released earlier this year and it kind of came and went without much of a fuss, which is weird since it’s Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The first few Pirates movies) returning to the horror genre fifteen years after The Ring. The movie follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, Amazing Spider-Man 2), a young executive at a New York City financial services firm, as he is sent to a mysterious “wellness center” deep within the Swiss Alps to retrieve the CEO of the firm, who has disappeared there for the past few years.
The first hour or so of the movie, which focuses on the wellness center and the mystery surrounding it, is the best part of A Cure for Wellness. Lockhart is your typical wall street-type; overworked and driven by selfishness, and when he arrives at the wellness center he finds that most of the inhabitants there are older versions of what he is likely to become. They are people who introduce themselves in ways like, “Victoria Watkins. 40 years. Xerox”, and are defined by their work and accomplishments within the corporate world. These are also people that don’t want to leave the wellness center. They have spent years running on the harsh corporate hamster wheel, and the center serves as an escape for them, as well as a way to get back in touch with nature and reality.
The entire idea of the wellness center as it’s presented in the movie is completely ridiculous, and Verbinski and the film’s screenwriter, Justin Haythe (Snitch, The Lone Ranger), play it that way. The wellness center has features such as swimming pools, badminton courts, and vitamin drops to invigorate its inhabitants and keep them healthy, all while overlooking one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Swiss Alps. If these assholes want to feel better, all they really have to do is just go outside and sit and look at where they are. But they can’t, and neither can Lockhart.
I really do like the first hour or so of this movie. I think Verbinski and Haythe do some really interesting things with the wellness center and the character of Lockhart. He’s a man who is so disconnected from this aspect of human experience (rest, relaxation, water, vitamins), that when he is confronted with it, it scares him. Showing the experience of getting back in touch with ones humanity as something to be feared is a cool concept, as well as a pretty indicting comment on life in 2017. When Lockhart arrives at the wellness center, his phone is useless, his watch stops, and he is left to his own devices, which is something that his years in the corporate world have not prepared him to handle.
The issues with the film don’t really begin to rear their head until we begin to find out more about the character of Hannah (Mia Goth), and the head of the wellness center, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Hannah is a mysterious young patient at the wellness center who takes her vitamins, tiptoes around outside on a hill that overlooks the mountains that surround her, and sings the film’s score seemingly just to creep Lockhart out. At first she’s kind of cool, but when the movie delves deeper into her back story things start to go off the rails.
The wellness center where Lockhart is hanging out was built on the ruins of a castle that was burned down around two-hundred years prior. The baron that lived in the castle desired an heir that was of pure blood, so he married his infertile sister (obviously). When he found out that his sister was infertile, he turned to performing awful experiments on the nearby town folk in an attempt to cure his sister of her infertility. Well, the town folk found out about this and reacted by going, “Hey asshole, quit that shit” and they burned his castle down. It turns out that the sister had a daughter, Hannah, and her father is actually Dr. Volmer, both aging at a slow pace thanks to the center’s “vitamins”. I guess this all kind of a spoiler, but I don’t really feel too bad about spoiling it, because none if it really makes much sense anyway.
I think part of the reason the background story of Hannah and Dr. Volmer doesn’t make a lot of sense is due the interminability of the scenes revolving around Lockhart’s investigation into the mystery surrounding them. They’re really bad, and kill any momentum the film has in its first hour. A lot of the issues with these scenes can be tied to the character of Lockhart as well. There is an inconsistency to the character during this portion of the film as he becomes a dogged investigator, something that is never really prevalent in the introduction to Lockhart.
The investigation scenes also grind the movie to a halt because the most fun to be had with the movie is in watching Verbinski show off his visual skills as a director. Regardless of the issues I have with the movie, it really is a gorgeous looking film. It’s also wacky as hell. Which is nice because when the film does slow down–something that is bound to happen over the span of 150 minutes (!)– The film will do some crazy shit to pull you back in. It really is one of those movies that I can’t believe a studio greenlit, especially with a 40 million dollar budget. This is a movie that features a woman disrobe in front of a man who is supposed to be monitoring Lockhart inside a water submersion tank, but isn’t watching him because he is too busy furiously masturbating to the disrobed woman. This is a movie that stops out of nowhere so that we can watch Hannah perform a ballerina dance set to Swiss punk rock. This is a movie that force feeds eels down Dane DeHaan’s throat.
Oh yeah, back to the dicks. There are ton of scenes eel scenes in this movie, and most of the time they’re used as way to convey phallic symbolism; or at least I’m pretty sure they are. I’m not a psych major, but I’m not necessarily sure how else to interpret a nude woman in a tub with eels writhing all over her. The eels are also neat because they act like Dr. Volmer’s minions performing his mad scientist dirty work. There is a ton of Freudian stuff in the movie as well. The movie features scenes of teeth falling out, incest, repression; it really throws a ton at the wall, but it’s mostly about eels. Did you know that while at the University of Vienna, Freud spent over 400 hours dissecting eels trying to find their testicles to no avail? I didn’t, but I’m guessing the Verbinski and Haythe did, which is good because I feel like I’ve learned a fun fact by watching this movie, and that’s kind of cool.
All of this crazy stuff happens in the first two acts of the film. I haven’t even touched on the insane third act of A Cure for Wellness. I’ll do my best not to spoil it, but the third act is pretty emblematic of the film as a whole: It’s weird, gross, and shifts the focus of the film back to the nonsensical Hannah plot; but at the same time, it’s crazy as balls and throws in a lot of gothic horror elements that are beautiful to look at. There is also a final shot that is an all-timer in terms of sheer goofiness, but I kind of like it as a capper on the film’s theme of finding your place in a world full of corporate bullshit.
A Cure for Wellness is a strange one. It’s bloated, and never really makes a ton of sense, but with the way the movie plays out, the bloat and nonsense work in its favor. It feels like one of those movies that is based on a book that only makes sense to people who have read the book. Twice. For me, the good of the movie outweighs the bad, and I’m really happy for the kids in college psych classes and their teachers who are looking for modern examples of Freudian thought and phallic symbolism. We don’t get big budget movies as crazy as this one often, and I think that’s a good thing, because it makes the ones we do get special.