At eight films into the year, who’s to say if Gore Verbiski’s A Cure For Wellness will still be the strangest film I’ve seen from 2017? Get Out, Raw, and American Fable have rolled on by, with Personal Shopperwaiting right around the immediate corner, in all of their own distinct flavors of horrifying, strange, and discomfiting, and that’s nothing to say of films like The Beguiled off in the distance. But with a budget at least nine times higher than Shopper’s and eight times higher than Get Out’s (Fable and The Beguiled don’t have a reported budget, as far as I can tell), Wellness’s weirdness has been its primary selling point, both within itself and as a child of the studio system with tens of millions and a name-brand director of popular money-makers behind it. Its reputation for being absolutely batshit has superseded most conversation about it, even acknowledging lapses in plot, theme, length, and characterization. And Wellness lapses in all of these areas, regularly. The obviousness of where it will go is so heavily thudded in its first half that it keeps working against itself in moments that should be wonderfully odd. But once everything officially goes to shit for our hero, and the film finally stops pretending to hide what it’s doing and starts luxuriating in its own insanity, all that foreshadowing is recuperated in the service of executing these story beats in even stranger ways than I could have possibly expected.
Let’s start from the beginning, or maybe the prologue, where an initially nameless CEO dies of a heart attack working late in his company’s office space. The dead man’s body bathed in the light of – and dwarfed by – a seemingly infinite number of desktop computers is both the first in a multitude of striking imagery and a red herring, implying the film will have a long-reaching thesis about how American business-people are literally working themselves to death. From there we see the ascension of corporate cog Lockhart, only to be sent to off a mysterious resort in Sweden by the partners of his corporation, blackmailing him to retrieve their missing partner so that they can bring him home and lock him up as a patsy for their own shady dealings. The casting of Dane DeHaan, already so gaunt, is enough to reinforce the idea of death by overworking as Lockhart heads off on his assignment, seemingly peeved at the tremendous effort he’s undertaking simply to go and pick up this rogue suit. Not until he lands in the limousine taking him to that gothic wellness center do we see or hear anything of real value to the plot, establishing not just the truly bizarre story of how the hospital came to be but the contentious relationship between the hospital and the village leading up to it, rooted in said bizarre goings-on. This only really matters for a single detour into town, though, as Lockhart spends the rest of the film trapped in the wellness center as a patient and a test subject.
I do hope that calling him a test subject isn’t considered a spoiler, but it’s hard to call that overarching narrative all that shocking. From the moment we arrive the wellness center has a sterile, menacing aura that’s only enhanced once we get inside the institution and meet director Dr. Volmer and his ward Hannah, played respectively by a slimy Jason Isaacs and young Mia Goth, looking like Shelley DuVall as a Tim Burton ingenue. Like a lot in Wellness, the exact nature of their relationship is one you’ll likely realize long before you’re told about it; the first eighty minutes of the film are torn between trying to maintain some impression the hospice is normal enough and DeHaan is just imaging things or either going full bore up its own ass. And since the entire plot is built on how goddamn bizarre everything actually is, there’s not much going on for the first half outside of the few moments Verbinski goes “fuck it” and lets everything happen all at once. I spent those eighty minutes longing for the sheer, sporadic insanity of moments like the deer limping its shattered body off the road and away from the car wreck, the missing CEO slinking into a pool and spending too much time getting his head wet, Lockhart’s first treatment in the tank that may or may not have been infested with dozens of eels. A trip into town wherein Lockhart takes Hannah with him as he tries to establish contact with his employers is perhaps the first scene that manages to genuinely build its own kind of tension as we watch Hannah float around the bar, orbited by intrigued and skeevy punks, unaware of the dangers these kids are to her as she wanders into the bathroom and steals an abandoned tube of lipstick before dancing to the jukebox with the other kids. Meanwhile, Lockhart meets a farmer who becomes the thirty-eighth person to dish out something about the legend of the mad baron who opened the institution before comparing Lockhart to an injured cow the farmer has to slaughter.
From here we have about two more labyrinthine explorations, each more unraveled than the last one, before Lockhart confronts Dr. Volmer at a dinner table sequence that finally lays bare what he’s doing to the patients bare- involving even more eels and the suspiciously ineffective water that isn’t stopping teeth from popping out due to dehydration. And once we learn this, A Cure for Wellnessat last stops trying to resist its strangest impulses and doesn’t just jump full bore up its own ass, but starts actually driving forward in the narrative after spending so much time trying to obfuscate its mysteries. Scenes start landing punches, stakes really matter, and the reveals land with such potency that it doesn’t even matter you already figured out this mad tale of incest and genetic experimentation over an hour ago. The real surprises in the institution are not the horrific farming of its patients, but the sheer gusto and fright with which these moments are finally visualized instead of whispered at us by a doomed woman cutting up newspaper scraps (Celia Imre, not given enough screen time to contribute her own brand of spookiness).
But what’s most striking is how assured and confidently the film reveals its layers of madness and human experimentation once it gets there. Never have I seen a man rip off what’s left of his face with such vigor, or the burning of a ballroom be shot with the same sweeping gorgeousness, if not more, as it had been when it was a party celebrating a truly awful success. Its set pieces had always been effective and well-shot, but the vigor in those moments has spread to the rest of the film, now that it’s given itself over to its own strangeness. The ending is, if anything, bigger than I had expected in its rampaging through the institution and its characters as Dr. Volmer sets his final plans in motion, and as Lockhart raced to find him I genuinely wondered how on earth he could pull this off. Wellness’ weirdness is not just potent but utterly grandiose, going full-scale melodrama in its last half hour in order to fulfill a story with fewer layers to it than Raw or Get Out, in realizing a plot it was too happy to telegraph from its earliest moments, and I’ll be damned if the sheer spectacle didn’t bowl me over better than any “event” blockbuster I’ve grumbled my way to a ticket for with my boyfriend.
Looking it up, I can’t say I’m shocked about the critical mixed reception, perhaps even the poor returns financially, but I wish things had gone a little better for this odd little fucker. If you’re hoping for more out of a film than strangeness, perhaps check out the talents of Eve Stewart, shuttled off from the greater horror of Tom Hooper’s sets, striking a fine balance in her realization of the institution that can flip from perfectly normal, uncomfortably sterile, and truly haunted, and that’s before we even get to the underground lair or some crazy aboveground shit. Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography, operating within the spa’s blues, the cast’s whites, and whatever flourished of color are called upon amongst all this pale, does similarly skilled work realizing set pieces like Hannah wading through a pool or the ballroom escapades horrific to watch and visually stunning. Bazelli and the makeup department must get credit for accenting DeHaan’s sickliest features, and making Goth look so much like she’d never touched sunlight, like every Victorian heroine meant to symbolize The Hopes And Dreams Of The Oppressed or something like that. I can’t say you’ve really missed much if you missed this film while it was in its theatrical run, but I know seeing that crazy shit on the big screen was enough of an amplifier to keep it in my head for a while. Then again, maybe it’ll feel even more at home on the Syfy channel when it isn’t showing one of its delicious, homemade fish-beast movies. If it’s ever there, I encourage you to give it a shot, even if you hop in an hour late. You probably haven’t missed the good stuff, you can easily catch up, and it’s better than you’d give it credit for just by looking at it.