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Review: Don't Drink the Water—Gore Verbinski's "A Cure for Wellness"

The director's followup to his flop "The Lone Ranger" is a puzzle picture, a conspiracy thriller and a kind of baroque classical nightmare.
A Cure for Wellness
Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer in A Cure for Wellness
It starts with a whispered melody. It will send frissons of familiarity, of a kind of upsetting longing for clarity. You know that song the odd English girl is singing, but you can't place it. Neither can Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, who they might have called Lockjaw, as he can barely seem to spit his words out), which is what draws him into the guts of a mystery. And it draws the film into a slithering spiral, compels us to observe an autopsy of modern horror. What half-remembered giallo fugue is Gore Verbinski spooning up for us like medicine, pinioned to our chairs like one of the zombie patients in the film’s sinister clinic?
A puzzle picture, a conspiracy thriller, a kind of baroque classical nightmare, A Cure For Wellness is too sturdy, busy and sure of itself to be much of a horror film. Nor does it mean to be. It wears the gown of horror, sings the tune, but its ambition is only to show off the horror imagery in service of a search for something else. A sort of beginning. It makes no bigger a meal of its reversals and clues than is required. Verbinski knows the mystery of the images is what draws the curious into the theatre, not any promise of a finished Rubix cube. We came to get to the bottom of something else. A woman five rows behind me in a theatre in Queens screamed out and confirmed my thesis. She'd been having a conversation at full volume during the first twenty minutes of the movie, sadistically describing her experience. "It's scary," she says, in a sassy monotone. Nothing remotely frightening had happened yet beyond maybe a car accident involving a CGI stag. Nevertheless she persisted. "It's scary." About two thirds of the way through, Lockhart is offered a glass of whiskey by a member of the local constabulary, and before Verbinski has had a chance to scan the office and discover, Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style, that the nice guy is in on the plot, the girl shouts at the screen. Lockhart brings the whiskey to his lips and she shouts "Don't drink the water! It's in the water! It's in the water!" Horror films have played havoc with her. She didn’t have much reason to suspect that the drink is poisoned, but I don't know how closely she'd been following the plot. She was on her phone but she'd seen those images and she knows enough to know that something is deeply wrong. Verbinski knows it too. He conditioned us, along with everyone else, when he remade The Ring and gave us the cruelest, most satisfyingly nasty twist ending he could fashion. And now we're conditioned to expect trickery, whether we're involved or detached, like the CEO Lockhart has come to dislodge from the eerie clinic on a hill in the Swiss Alps. "The cure for the human condition" muses Jason Isaacs' Dr. Volmer, is "disease" because it gives us hope of being cured. Show an audience a lot of water, play that thrumming, throbbing score, and they know it's the problem. The plot is our condition. The mystery is everywhere but it doesn't matter half as much as the opportunity to round a corner and show us the next beautifully grim tableaux.
The plot is simple, even if it seldom relents. It's everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Lockhart is a young analyst who is caught cheating by his miserable higher-ups. They cut him a deal: go to Switzerland to retrieve an errant colleague and Lockhart won't have to go to jail. The missing man checked himself into an old clinic known for its healing waters and not even an hour goes by before Lockhart himself is in an accident and finds himself a patient in its walls, too. He just as quickly discovers nothing is what it seems and sets about unraveling the clinic's many mysteries.
Verbinski by now has carte blanche to do what he pleases, after his unwieldy pirate things took all that money. That's the only way to explain how he rebounded from The Lone Ranger, the best recent film Americans were told was bad. And not only did he rebound, he rebounded with a prestige budget horror movie about incest with no proper scares. He leveraged himself a position as the only American filmmaker who can throw millions at an anti-social passion project. Where'd this madman come from again?
His first short, The Ritual, sets up his ethos. It's a mannered exercise in paranoid Gen X economic theory expounded by three losers after their neighbor falls through the ceiling and dies on their floor. "The further we distance ourselves from death by eliminating the traditional ritual ceremony surrounding it, the more we become brainwashed that life and civilized living are the same thing," the ringleader says before their omnipresent television punctuates his remark with some of Chuck Jones' myna birds clobbering an old man with a hammer. Verbinski is a cautionary capitalist—he spends sums of money we can barely dream of reminding us that runaway expenditures and heedless growth are a poison. He's not wrong, and the receipts don't invalidate his argument. More movies could use his political backbone. Also established in this short: his sense of humor, somewhere between Lloyd Kaufman and Jonathan Swift. The slackers drag the dead man's body to an elevator but discover it's broken. They abandon their task to go eat rather than drag the man upstairs, leaving the "out of order" sign from the elevator around his neck. This is most certainly the work of the fellow who kills a black woman off-screen after a joke about rape-by-duckfoot in The Lone Ranger. Life is cheap and death is a joke in the Verbinskiverse.
Money drives everyone in his Pirates of the Caribbean movies because they realize, as his trio of demented L.A. bottom-feeders in The Ritual did before them, that living well and living aren't the same thing. Water is the shared commodity in his capitalist parables. It separates the pirates from the treasure they hunt, it destroys the prized house in Mousehunt (which established the director’s bonafides for immaculately depressing production design and gorgeously executed slapstick), it defines the career of Nicolas Cage's hangdog TV personality in The Weather Man, it's what undoes the silver mining tycoons in The Lone Ranger, and it drives the lizard robber baron in Rango. In A Cure for Wellness, it's pumped into patients like they're sieves and out comes a restorative tonic. It turns humans into a commodity, which capitalism makes them anyway.
And that's all well and good, but A Cure For Wellness is not the water. It's not the plot. It's the images. It's the colors. Manhattan, glimpsed fleetingly, is all grey boardrooms and black computer screens rhyming later with the dead eyes of taxidermy. It's drowning (it always rains in Manhattan) and the only way out of Lockhart's bind is up; a castle on a hill where the water is a friendlier turquoise. The clinic is at first all bright and pretty but the further up river the beleaguered servant of commerce travels, the more the colors flatten and turn dark, and the more everyone goes insane. The bleached copper and sand of The Lone Ranger (money's already run a train on the land there, no delusion to be found) are replaced with the ornate tile first glimpsed in The Ritual, and those cool, soothing blues. The camera itself (wielded by Bojan Bazelli, who's been at the unsettling game since Pumpkinhead, back when Verbinski was playing drums for Stiv Bators) travels downstream to find its purpose.
If you've seen a blockbuster art film in the last decade (Birdman, Black Swan, The King's Speech), there's a better than average chance you've been watching a shot guide written by Ken Russell, annotated and edited by Terry Gilliam. Russell's directors of photography could have been marathon runners. Those tile floors from The Ritual? They were Ken's first. They're in The Devils, a film from which Cure drinks deeply. That film is about religious and sexual hysteria (they're the same thing but don't tell anyone), which he saw as the twin pillars keeping people blind while governments get away with murder. Cure is lousy with The Devils' political and biological anxieties, starting with its financial sector skulduggery and reaching a wonderfully grotesque crescendo when a guard in charge of monitoring Lockhart's sensory deprivation tank masturbates to a nurse instead. The tank is Ken's too, borrowed from Altered States. And so are the waltzing zealots who congregate during the reunion between father and daughter in act 3. Verbinski has blended up the best of Russell and spins around in the resulting cocktail trying to determine where our own drives come from. Mixing The Music Lovers with Gothic, The Devils with Altered States is an exercise I can get behind on its face (Russell was barely appreciated in his time, and certainly not with anything like the proper proportions), but he's using Russell's grammar, his filthy interiors and sweaty exuberance, for a reason. The Devils and Gothic aren't horror films, they're films about horror. The ideas frighten us, but the filmmaking is so thrilling it’s stupefying. The camera, moving at lightning speed, strands us in space, a trick first used by Orson Welles in The Stranger. Welles finds his desperate ex-Nazi hero lost on the grounds of a New England college, hiding in plain sight (Like Volmer, obsessed with purity, repulsed by humans). Every direction could bring a new set of prying eyes, so while Welles the actor casts about nervously, Welles the director walks a straight line out in nature, his camera waltzing along just as Verbinski's does. The horror is inside of men like Charles Rankin and Charles Foster Kane, whose gothic mansion, 'stately' Xanadu, bears more than a passing resemblance to Volmer's clinic. Welles' heroes, like Russell's, Gilliam's and Verbinski's were infected from within. They searched endlessly for perfection, whether in themselves, or in the peskily imperfect pawns they feel they have to move.
Verbinski constantly moves to the past (he gets as far back as 1901 here, though his earliest reference point is 1925's Phantom of the Opera) because the national character intrigues him like a clinician. What kind of people would need selfish pirate heroes while scorning a film about the genocide of Native Americans that attempts some tiny measure of recrimination in the form of representation and on-screen poetic justice? Who are we? Can we be fixed? Verbinski and Bazelli swirl the lens around tightlipped and coiled little Dane DeHaan, one man pushed into a corner by money and pride, like Welles might have, to try and better understand the cynics who walk among us, like Welles' exiled Nazi. Lockhart has no goals until Volmer, at the clinic, gives him one. Maybe Verbinski is trying to gift us with purpose by continually throwing us the most beguiling art objects masquerading as blockbusters, by dressing up history lessons as rollercoasters and making us figure them out (and him, too, while we're at it). These movies, like far off whispered melodies, don't fit neatly into our ideas about genre. They stick out, bring us back in time, to a moment we can't always place. Their sweetly bizarre auspices bring us into conversation with the parts of our minds for which there may be no cure. 

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