An all out digital assault on the senses, Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness is the most brazen and bizarre studio horror picture to come out for quite some time (and was punished for it, bombing at the box office earlier this year). It’s also one of the better films released in 2017 thus far, due in part to the rarity of witnessing a visionary filmmaker unleashing that vision on the big screen with an impressive budget to work with.
The title refers to The Institute, a sanitarium high up in the Swiss Alps where rich titans of industry and commerce pay obscene amounts of money to get The Cure for what ails them. And in Wellness’ opening Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli make it abundantly clear what is ailing them. The camera slowly glides through New York at night, passing over the monolithic structures that stand as a testament to “success” and conquest. But they’re quiet, lifeless, the slightly greened color timing evoking both The Matrix and the consequences of greed. A high ranking salesman at a Wall Street firm falls victim to a heart attack, and the film’s title card appears, glossy, hovering over his dead body which has fallen amongst rows and rows of computers.
This all occurs during the prologue, but greatly informs the “why” and “how” of the delightfully bonkers plot movements that follow. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a ruthlessly ambitious and book-cooking young executive, is sent to the Institute to retrieve his company’s CEO and bring him back to New York to take the fall for some ledger irregularities that are certain to come to light as the company approaches an important merger.
Throughout what follows Verbinski consistently plays hard to get, pulling punches at every moment, but commanding a sense of curiosity and discomfort at all times. The digital images he creates, often utilizing water or other magnifying and distorting surfaces, are ones of self-reflection and perversion of the character in the frame; and thanks to the plethora of eels and eel imagery, as well as the Institute director’s mysterious daughter and her relationship to Lockhart, Wellness is similarly rife with unsettling psychosexual imagery and dread. As Lockhart hurdles further down the rabbit hole of this obviously malevolent institution, he and us in the audience are asking, “how can these patients all be so blind?” The answer is in the prologue and in the premise – all of this corruption and greed and endless work is a disease, but rather than truly self-reflect, we go into denial, and fall susceptible to the brand of gaslighting that’s really going on at The Institute.
Verbinski’s imagination is the real star here (as strong as DeHaan is as the audience surrogate), realized by Bazelli’s lense, which makes the sanitarium itself look diseased. As it progresses, Wellness abandons its largely slow burn, stylishly coy drip-feed of insane asylum horror and gleefully flings itself into a pure high-art gothic nightmare. It is so brazen and bonkers that Verbinski puts most recent American studio horror pictures to shame in just thirty minutes. More like this, please.