A Cure for Wellness
Posted by Holly
A Cure For Wellness
Director: Gore Verbinski
When you think of gothic fiction, you often think of dark and dreary castles, usually hiding unspeakable horrors. You might think of a plodding, surreal story that doesn’t try to frighten you so much as it intends to unnerve you. You’ll surely think of dark secrets, madness, and a sweeping romanticism that is hard to pin down but is unmistakable. While it might not necessarily appear to be as much at first glance, A Cure for Wellness is a modern gothic fairy tale, with all of its trappings.
Lockhart is enjoying his new, powerful position at his company when he’s unexpectedly sent on an unconventional mission: to reclaim one of the main board members of his company from a foreign spa center in time for a company merger. He begrudgingly complies, assuming that this will be an easy retrieval. When he’s met with resistance from the wellness center’s staff, he doubles down on his intent to succeed in his goal, but an accident soon puts him at the mercy of the center’s unusual healing techniques. As his time there extends, he begins to search for information to explain the strange behavior he witnesses – and soon finds more than he anticipated.
Where A Cure for Wellness excels is, first and foremost, in its embrace of the gothic nature of its own story. There are dark family secrets, mad scientists, a slight play on vampirism – all classic staples of the genre. While the story begins in a modern setting and is moved forward by a very modern sensibility, once Lockhart reaches the wellness facility, it’s as if he’s been locked in a time capsule. He’s cut off from his technology, and the back-to-basics attitude of the facility makes it feel as though they story could easily be taking place a hundred years prior. This sense of timelessness plays into the disorienting feel of the wellness center, which almost becomes a malicious character in and of itself.
However, unlike a lot of traditional gothic aesthetics, the film isn’t content to let the frights lurk only in dark, shadowy hallways (though there are plenty of those). It also plays a lot with the clinical, sterile nature of the health facility and the faux-positivity of the clientele – there are bright, sterile whites, and endless sunlight that washes over its open, inviting courtyard. But this, like the darkness and shadows often are, is a mask meant to distort both Lockhart and the audience’s perception. Beneath this cheerful and healthy veneer, there are many secrets being kept. And it’s often only when Lockhart eschews the bright, friendly looking parts of the facility and explores its dark underbelly that he actually finds the truth.
Lockhart is a character you don’t necessarily see yourself growing to like or care for when you’re first introduced to him. He’s an unscrupulous young executive, whose mission to bring home a higher-up in his own company is only motivated by the need to keep himself out of jail, and to keep his job. He blusters and bullies the staff once he arrives at the wellness center, and impatiently ignores the rules. It’s this disregard for authority, however, that helps transform him throughout the narrative. Once his broken leg is introduced, it completely recenters his characterization, allowing his bullish personality to be softened by this striking vulnerability. When it becomes apparent to him that something is very wrong at the center, you are compelled to even admire his tenacity to keep pushing back against authority and investigating through any means necessary, even when he’s clearly not the one in a position of power.
Where the story fails in character, however, is with its depiction of Hannah, the delicate young girl who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd at the center. Her character is integral to the mystery at hand, and as such, they don’t delve into her nearly as much as they could. It’s clear what the film intends her to be: the classic fairy tale princess, needing to be rescued from her tower. You can see what her purpose in the storyline is, but with the presence of almost no other female characters, it is frustrating to see her remain so flat in her characterization throughout the whole film. This problem is only aggravated by the last thirty minutes or so of the movie, in which her peril becomes the main focus, and she is excessively victimized.
This becomes a really big problem, especially considering the lack of female presence in the rest of the movie. One of the only other significant female characters is Lockhart’s mother, who is portrayed as mentally incompetent and fragile. She appears in roughly two scenes, both of which serve to create a humanizing backstory for Lockhart, rather than her own character. The other woman is Victoria, a patient at the center who Lockhart is friendly with. Her characterization is also very shallow, with an apparent obsession with the history of the center and growing suspicions of its nefarious qualities (yet never exploring her decision to go there and stay). Her character is tossed aside and killed off rather abruptly, once she has passed on important pieces of information on to Lockhart.
The latter half of the film opts to embrace shock tactics as its method of delivering scares. This isn’t a bad idea on principle, but it does require a bit of balancing to determine what kind of shock serves the story, and what kind crosses the line. Punctuating the moody and atmospheric setting with moments of intense body horror actually has moments of brilliance and often catches you off-guard. They check almost every box off in my “nope” list and succeed in making you deeply uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the film moves over into “crossing the line” a number of times, most notably in the way Hannah’s story plays out. An explicit rape scene is bad enough, but the depiction of it is excessively exploitative and upsetting. It undermines a lot of what works with the earlier shocking scenes, and forcibly turns discomfort into repulsion.
There’s a subtle, tongue-in-cheek social commentary that is ongoing throughout the film about the concept of “wellness”. It’s one of the themes that feel inescapably modern, even with the gothic overtones throughout the film. The current obsession with wellness, which can occasionally manifest in self-destructive fad diets, homeopathic treatments, and focus on spiritual healing, is given a satirical treatment here. All of the patients of the wellness center have more than enough money and prestige to afford the best medical care available, and could probably be very healthy if they invested their resources in that. But instead, they all opt for a center whose treatment revolves around water with mystical healing properties. Many of them do not survive this naive decision. The beginning of the film suggests that the sickness that must be cured is our society’s obsession with wealth, technology, and all of the drawbacks that come with it – by the end, it’s perhaps the idea of wellness itself that is the sickness.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. This one seems to be somewhat divisive among critics, and it is flawed and unkind to its female characters. I still enjoyed it quite a bit; it loses most of its points for the treatment of women.
Scariness level: The first half of the movie builds and maintains a wonderful tension, though it does kind of diffuse as the movie meanders a bit halfway through.
Violence level: Hoo boy. The amount I said “nope” and turned my head away is actually pretty impressive. If you have issues with gore involving teeth, with drowning, with creepy crawly things inside your body, or with incest and rape, you are going to have some very uncomfortable moments.
Bechel test: Not even close. Unfortunately, women are not a very strong presence in this movie.
Mako Mori test: An even bigger nope. Hannah really only sort of floats along with the men’s storylines, never having any agency of her own.