R 146 mins. Gore Verbinski USA 2016
I think you need to start with the eels. The eels are everything in A Cure for Wellness. They are what I am going to remember from this oddly forgettable movie, and they are a metaphor for the film’s promise and failure to live up to that promise. If this movie were a character in The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015) and had to turn into an animal because it couldn’t find a mate (and I can’t imagine there are a whole lot of potential suitors lining up), it’d chose to turn into an eel and slip out of our grasp and our memories as soon as it could. And it’s not even an electric eel! There is exactly one scene that works in this movie, but the movie couldn’t let it last and so it moves to the next scene incoherently, but we’ll get to that. For now, just picture some eels looking kinda weird but not actually doing anything (perhaps they’re supposed to be phallic? The movie almost does something interesting with this, but then it definitely doesn’t) for a whole minute and it’ll be like you watched A Cure for Wellness, but instead you’ll have 145 minutes left to do anything else with your life. Maybe get yourself an eel and play with it?
One front from which you can’t attack A Cure for Wellness is its scope. Thanks to its extended length, it takes its time to develop a world which at once exists within our own and about 200 years in the past. A man named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) must travel to the Swiss Alps to retrieve a fall guy for some shady business dealings. He discovers that the sanatorium his prey resides in might not be on the up and up, but before he is able to finish his task he suffers an accident and breaks his leg, forcing him to become a patient at the weird mountaintop resort where the water just might kill you. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, between that set-up and the overblown climax, but recounting it will not help you understand the film any more, nor will it be very meaningful. This movie is too busy trying to do everything that it ends up doing nothing other than test the viewer’s patience.
The film soon becomes a game of spot the reference. Whether or not this is fun for you will vary, and it doesn’t actually do anything with these references, so the game is empty either way. I spotted references to Hannibal (the TV show, with its stag imagery everywhere), The Ninth Configuration (I swear that the local bar they visit is the same exact set as the one in this underseen William Peter Blatty film. You know what, go watch that instead of this mess), Pan’s Labyrinth (humming young girl, pollen everywhere to represent Edenic splendor), and a poor attempt at aping Stanley Kubrick’s style.
Style is, indeed, pretty much the only thing this movie has going for it. It looks really pretty, and early on that was enough to sustain my interest. But as plot contrivances pile on top of ridiculous dialogue, I began to tune out. I’d get excited whenever the eels were on screen, because maybe the movie would actually do something with them and it could be its own thing for a moment. But mostly they just swim around, and so their (and the movie’s) potential turns into a morbid curiosity. Could Gore Verbinski tie this mishmash together into something cohesive and interesting?
Well, it depends. If what you’re looking for is what the film’s marketing promised, a creepy medical horror film, you’ll be disappointed.
But if you like movies that turn into commentaries on racism and white supremacy, maybe you can get through the first two hours and tune in for the (over the top) take on purity and history. The movie gives only one clue that it’s going in this direction early on, a line of dialogue from a ruthless businesswoman who asks DeHaan’s wide-eyed young exec, “You ever have a big, black 12-inch cock up your ass?” as a way of threatening him with jail if he doesn’t complete his task. It seems like a (racist! dumb! homophobic!) non sequitur even though that scene also features the film’s only black character. This idea of racial purity does rear its ugly, slimy face late in the film, though, and gives the closing minutes some much needed oomph, even if it comes too late to be of any real significance. In the version of the movie that was made, this theme pokes its head out of a cave for a few minutes here and there before fully revealing itself at the end. It suffers for this, because it doesn’t fully attach to what we’ve seen for the previous two hours. Were this more central to the rest of the film, it might give the movie a backbone to build around. As is, it’s a wriggling mess of a movie, one which has great sound design (that one good scene is mostly sound and not for odontophobes) and an intriguing if unsatisfying conclusion.
Needs more eels.
Alex Thompson is in the M.A. Program in English at Lehigh University and can be found on Facebook.