(WARNING: This article contains massive spoilers for A Cure For Wellness)
It isn’t every day that a movie leaves people with nothing to say but, “What the hell?” Gore Verbinski’s new psychological #thriller, A Cure For Wellness, however, is a special case. When the early reviews popped up, critics were split on the movie. Some called it a masterpiece of style while others complained the story was too predictable and muddled under the weight of a beautifully dark aesthetic. Is this massively disturbing thrill ride a classic case of style over substance, or is there something deeper behind the stunning visuals?
One thing is clear: A Cure For Wellness is a treat to look at, but the #cinematography doesn’t just serve as eye candy. The movie takes a subtle approach to storytelling that relies on recurring visuals to carry the themes. There are three major motifs you probably noticed in the film, but didn't realize how much they define the story.
What’s Going On In Switzerland?
A Cure For Wellness is the story of Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a successful young business man who’s sent to a wellness center in the Alps to retrieve the CEO of his company. Unfortunately, this wellness center isn’t just a pleasure-seeker’s resort. Dr. Volmer, played by the marvelously creepy Jason Isaacs, offers a hydro-centered treatment to all his patients, but the dark history surrounding the center reveals a more sinister motive behind Volmer’s experiments.
Between slithering eels, special "vitamins," and a mysterious young girl, Lockhart uncovers the truth: Volmer is older than time. He’s been raising the girl — his daughter, actually — for the sole purpose of impregnating her and keeping his bloodline pure. A little off-putting? Completely. As much as A Cure For Wellness centers on history repeating itself, it’s also driven by existential themes of the human condition. Volmer keeps his patients captive by telling them they are sick. When challenged, he delivers this deeply unsettling idea:
The full-circle nature of the movie is where the visuals come into play. Open your eyes wide and breathe deep, because some of the sights in A Cure For Wellness are bound to make you flinch.
Cigarettes That Never Leave You Alone
The first thing you notice about Lockhart is the package of nicotine gum he carries. He’s trying to kick his smoking habit, but when he arrives at the wellness center, cigarettes show up in the worst places. First, the driver takes a few drags on the way up the mountain. When Lockhart escapes the sanitarium and goes to town, the man he hires to look at a strange medical record fills the screen with plumes of smoke. Lockhart can't escape the draw of nicotine and tobacco, and in the moment when he peels back the facade of the wellness center, he steals a cigarette and takes a glorious drag, only to be captured by Volmer in the following minutes.
Just take a look at where smoking got him.
What's up with the cigarettes? It's simple: Cigarettes are the door into Lockhart’s personal struggle. Willing victimhood is a strong theme in the #film, and cigarettes are Lockhart’s weakness. At first, he fights the urge to smoke, but gives in at his darkest moment. The swirling smoke and glowing embers work to cement the idea that when we give up control, we’ll only fall farther.
Antlers And Eels Are Coming For You, Dane DeHaan
Want to know why A Cure for Wellness is so creepy? Eels, man. It’s the damn eels. They slither over bare skin, wriggle in toilet tanks, and even squirm down unwilling throats. Try not to think too hard about that last one, but just keep in mind that both the eels and one troublesome deer are vital to the depth of the plot.
The first time Lockhart leaves the sanitarium, a deer jumps in front of the car and triggers a horrific crash. He wakes up in the wellness center with a broken leg, and then the hallucinations begin. Deer in the steam rooms and eels swimming across bodies are some of the strangest moments in the movie, but in the midst of the #horror elements, we're left with a burning question: Are the animals real, or are they just a metaphor for something else? The answer is both. Volmer’s eels (and the deer) are very real. The eels in particular serve an important purpose, but they also represent the third side in the conflict, the unpredictability of the situation and the gray lines in life.
What's the deal with the eels? Dr. Volmer has no control over them. He uses them, but they are a force of their own, as we see when Volmer is eventually devoured by the wriggling nasties In the spirit of a full-circle ideology, A Cure For Wellness uses the recurring animal scenes to draw out the tension and remind us that, despite our strength, there are some things we can never control.
Water Droplets And Twisted Reflections
This is where things get a little strange, because A Cure For Wellness connects all the rambling, existential questions about life to the edgy plot by pointing the camera toward a glass of water?
A Cure For Wellness shows off Bojan Bazelli's visual style by focusing on small details and warped perspectives. We see the mountains reflected in the window of a train, a girl’s innocent form in a pool of water, and the little drops of condensation on a glass. No matter how strange or unbelievable the story gets, these images always circle back. The first thought you’ll have is, “That’s neat.” The reflections are cool, but they also mark the moments the story asks an important question or a character comes to a frightening realization.
Why so many gallons of water? The rampant shots of reflections and moving liquid connect both sides of A Cure For Wellness. The first side consists of the story's psychologically twisted questions about existence. The second side is rooted deep in the psychologically twisted history of the wellness center, a plot structure we've all seen before. Without the visual reminder of the reflections, A Cure For Wellness wouldn’t be able to connect the story or light up our nerves with those intense scenes.
Is that all? Not quite. The cinematography is vital to the story, of course, but it’s also strong enough to speak for itself. Every time you find yourself deep in thought, it’s always a direct result of a reflection pulling you into a different perspective or the flowing water unlocking a scary thought in your mind.
And sometimes, the visuals are the story.
A Cure For Wellness is easily one of the strangest Gore Verbinski films, and by far the most disturbing. Even though it’s come under fire for a running time that drags and a story that doesn’t always stay in the realm of reliability, A Cure For Wellness makes up for it with visuals that bring all the subtle meanings of the film to light. It’s a full-circle ride that doesn’t end when the credits roll.
For better or for worse, what you see will stick in your mind. You'll begin to ask yourself: “Am I well?”