An executive at a major company dies, alone, in his darkened office: a heart attack. He was an associate of the year or some such, a real hard-charging type. A letter from a health spa in central Europe sent by the man's mentor, the CEO, sits unopened on his desk. Starkly shot—with crisp close ups, slow pans, slower reveals, and a perfectly framed collage of screens pumping out stock data as the film's title appears above them—and modestly tense, and a teensy bit funny, this prologue sets the stage for the film's 146 minutes.
Turns out that the CEO has quit, citing a need to take better care of himself. Good for him; bad for the company, which is in the midst of a merger and has a number of—well, irregularities on the books. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), no stranger to fiscal irregularities and shady shortcuts himself, is tasked by the board with finding the CEO and bringing him back to the United States so that the kinks can be worked out or a sacrificial lamb—either Lockhart or the CEO, either way—can be offered up to the SEC.
Mr. Pembroke (Harry Groener) will not be easy for Lockhart to acquire: the spa within which he has holed up has taken hold of his soul. Stuffed to the gills with multi-millionaires of all stripes—hard-working white collars looking to get well after a lifetime of stress and exertion—the Swiss resort feels, in part, like a swanky retirement community more than a sanatorium. Grey hairs shuffle about in white robes, playing chess on the porch and croquet on the lawn.
They've all been entranced by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the spa's director. A believer in the curative power of the waters beneath his hospice, Volmer stresses that stress kills. That means no phones, no Internet, and no TV whilst locked away in the Swiss Alps. Lockhart clearly thinks it's a scam—but starts to wonder, perhaps, after undergoing a few treatments and seeing visions: some eels here, being trapped in a walled-off sauna there. Is he losing his mind, or is something darker at work? And why is there only one patient below the age of 60 on the grounds: a waifish girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) whose eerie preternatural beauty makes her irresistible to Lockhart.
Goth and DeHaan make an appropriate couple for their creepy setting. A bit gawky and awkward, with drawn faces and dark eyes, the two feel like the physical embodiment of the idea that we moderns are all deeply unwell and in search of some magical, ancient cure. DeHaan in particular—bags under his eyes, his face gaunt and sallow, his skin a greyish pallor—seems to represent the toxins of our times. He always looks a bit like death made flesh, and the color filter utilized by Director Gore Verbinski—giving everything a blueish-greenish-greyish tint—only heightens the effect.
But the cure may in fact be worse than the disease. Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe take apart the pretense that modernity—with its 12-hour work days and hard-charging lifestyles—itself is a disease in need of curing by retreating into the ways of the past.
There's much to like about Verbinski's film, which is shot with a sort of stark, crisp beauty that slips seamlessly into outright creepiness. He's aided by his actors in this regard: DeHaan and Goth, of course, but also Isaacs, whose natural squint betrays an engine of menace revving at a resting rate of about 3,000 rpm. But toward the end of A Cure for Wellness we go from creepy to outright grotesque in no time flat. The results are unpleasant.
I won't spoil the film's ending here, though viewers playing close enough attention will see the "twist" coming a mile away. All I'll do is suggest that, tonally, Verbinski handles it in the most skin-crawlingly disgusting way possible. There's an ick factor here that is hard to ignore—and, frankly, one that feels rather unnecessary. The grotesquerie may serve to reinforce the film's thematic contempt for the old ways, the supposedly purer times that we all yearn for. But it also leaves a sour taste in the mouth—it's simply too ridiculous and too ribald to effectively drive home the point, and prompts guffaws rather than contemplation.