So, I wrote about the sometimes-blasé nature of contemporary horror in a recent piece on The Bye Bye Man, a much hyped movie that turned out to be a dull, formulaic disappointment. Shortly after, I embarked on a Shyamal-a-thon to mix things up; contrary to the flack he gets, I think M. Night makes a great, original movie with a unique vision. But if you really want unique – and, that is, unique with a side of extra fucked-up (there’s no eloquent way to encapsulate the reality of this film) – look no further than Gore Verbinski’s A Cure For Wellness, which crawls under your skin like a festering amoeba and provokes distinct discomfort throughout what is, for horror, an epic-scale movie length: two and a half hours. A Cure for Wellness is also a cure for boredom, for the common moviegoer and the volatile sadist alike. But even as I write this, I find myself torn: do I spend a post emphasizing how uncomfortable and unconventional the film was, or do I explore some reasonably intelligent questions the film raises? This, then, is my disclaimer: I have no idea how to begin to discuss this movie, so I can’t predict where this post will go. I’ll try not to divulge the film’s big secret, but beyond that effort, I make no promises about anything.
I always like to start with a little background. I should say, first of all, that I thought this movie was going to be a searing insult to the mental health community, since its previews evoked a sort of haunted asylum vibe. And second, I thought it would be traditional horror length. Michael and I were sitting in the Tinseltown lobby waiting for the film to start seating when he, in typical Michael fashion, googled the film’s duration to predict how long he would have to tough it out (even though he’s kind of a seasoned horror veteran by this point). When he started spitting expletives and told me how long the film was, I became especially intrigued. Its lengthy time span was the first indicator that it would buck conventions and situate itself in the realm of atypical horror.
It was refreshing to find that the film didn’t rest on the “scary crazy person” trope that so much horror seems to savor lately. Dane DeHaan plays Jason Lockhart, an ambitious young Wall Street employee sent by his firm to retrieve a major company executive – Pembroke, played by Harry Groener – from a private spa in Switzerland, where he’s locked himself away with a stated refusal to return. But Pembroke has no desire to be retrieved, and a car crash sends Jason to a bed in the spa with a broken leg. Jason senses the unusual nature of a place where a bunch of former rich elites have come to retire from the world, and, in an effort to retrieve Pembroke and find out more about the spa, accepts an offer for “the treatment” from the spa’s head doctor, Dr. Volmer, played by Jason Isaacs. As Jason undergoes the cure, he experiences myriad unsettling elements of the spa – which seems, at times, more like an institution – and tries to unravel the mystery behind the ominous castle on a hill.
The phenomenon of the spa seems to be that a lot of ostensibly “well” people, by cultural standards, commit themselves for a treatment and become convinced that they are not “well” – although the word is never defined much, and there seems some overlap between notions of physical and mental sickness in the film, which I would argue is accurate and appropriate. Starry-eyed patients proclaim they’re not well so often that the film becomes, in one sense, a questioning of contemporary notions of sickness, both physical and psychological. The word is tossed around in such a frequent and ridiculous way that I started considering the possibility that we emphasize the divide between sickness and wellness – as if there were always a clear delineation – too much in our culture.
Of course, there has always been some critiquing the frequency with which we diagnose illness – specifically mental illness – in contemporary culture. And while I believe that mental illness is a very real thing, I kept thinking of the book I read over ten years ago by Thomas Szas called Insanity: The Idea and its Consequences. Szas argues that an illness of the brain entails the existence of a demonstrable lesion (from an injury, syphilis, etc.) and that all other forms of mental illness are socially constructed and unreal. Szas’s argument seemed compelling when I was 19. Then life happened, and now it seems ridiculous and dangerous. I don’t really have the luxury of believing it. But the film did seem to parody doctors who are quick to convince their patients that they’re “sick” and speculate the consequences of creating mental illness where there may be none. Patients are quick to arrive at the spa for “the cure” and blindly believe they are getting well – but never well enough – even as the cure seems to have some troubling and undesirable effects. Jason becomes constantly frustrated with the fact that seemingly “healthy” people become sicker through the treatment, a suggestion – whether or not it’s a good argument – that some psychiatric diagnoses may do more harm than good.
But the film also raises the question: what is sickness, how does it manifest, and what do we do about it? For, while the patients of the Switzerland spa may not have diagnosable mental illnesses, many of them may indeed be soul sick. If they were happy, content, and complete, why would they seek the cure to begin with? Most of the clients have been heavily involved in business and progress, at the price of being actively involved in family and other components of their community. Ironically, these elite decide to take rest in a secluded mountain spa away from society, further sequestering themselves from the norms of daily life. The film, then, seems to suggest that there is a problem with how some of us live our lives – or, at least, a problem with what it takes to be stereotypically successful in a fast-paced, capitalist society. There is, then, the subtle implication (and this is a typical argument) that the crux of much mental illness is based on society’s structure and its consequences on the individual.
Along with raising interesting questions, the film manages to make the viewer incredibly uncomfortable. While I want to refrain from spoilers, I’ll give you some hints regarding what to expect: throngs of creepy looking eels swimming everywhere to evoke a primal fear of reptiles is the mere beginning of the discomfort. Add to that fear a horrible dentistry scene and a close shot of a deer slowly dying, among a sea of other unsavory shots. There were definitely times when I closed my eyes, and after the film, Michael’s first comment regarded how uncomfortable it was. Indeed, in some ways it seemed like a long, macabre fairy tale.
I think, however, that the discomfort was well-executed. In my first post for this blog, about the first episode of American Horror Story: Haunted Hotel, I argued that the show tried to explore uncharted territory, tried to shock the viewer at the expense of being truly scary. I would not say A Cure for Wellness fell into this category; the film manages to be incredibly uncomfortable and undeniably scary. Given the prevalence of formulaic, predictable movies with well-timed jump scares and similar plots and backstories, this dark, insidious film was notably refreshing for its originality. The story line was captivating and the film’s ambience was indisputably, consistently dark. The film ultimately suggests we reject social conventions and typical notions of success and achievement while questioning what our alternatives are. The concluding scene suggests that if we’re not successful CEO’s, and we’re not spaced out on a mountain spa, we might be unsure where we’re ultimately headed. In that light, the film will make you incredibly uneasy while provoking some important points to ponder.