A Cure for Wellness is a chilling film, if you can make it through to the end of it. It’s got a bloated 146 minute runtime that very easily could have, and should have, been trimmed down or used to give more depth to its backstory. Dane DeHaan leads the cast as Lockhart, an ambitious young executive who finds himself in the throws of a “wellness center” that isn’t quite as it seems.
The film begins with Lockhart replacing Morris (Craig Wroe) after he suffers a fatal heart attack. The financial services firm’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener,) has gone off to the “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps, and with Morris dead, the firm enlists Lockhart to go and retrieve their CEO to authorize a company merger.
A Cure for Wellness doesn’t take much time to dwell on why Lockhart is sent, or why they would trust him to be able to get Pembroke to leave his retreat considering the two had never met. Nonetheless, Lockhart arrives at the Swiss Alps wellness center where the staff refuse to comply with letting him talk to Pembroke.
Lockhart relents and leaves, but it’s less than surprising that he finds himself in an automobile accident on his journey out of town. A Cure for Wellness paints by numbers as Lockhart mysteriously awakens at the center with his leg in a cast. Now that there’s little chance for Lockhart to leave, the film takes its chance to explore both the center and its residents.
Understandably, most of the people Lockhart finds at the wellness center are the elderly, like Pembroke, who are searching for a ‘cure,’ even if there isn’t necessarily something wrong with them. As death draws near, they cling to life and subject themselves willingly to experimental treatments to feel ‘better.’
One girl, Hannah (Mia Goth), stands out from most residents, and Lockhart befriends her. She is touted as being different from the rest of the center’s residents, but she, too, drinks an unknown liquid from a blue bottle regularly. Hannah sticks out like a sore thumb almost as much as Lockhart does. The main difference between the two characters is their knowledge of the workings of the center.
In her talks with Lockhart, Hannah is aloof and seemingly aware of what goes on behind closed doors, even if she wishes she didn’t know. Lockhart, on the other hand, wants to know what is happening and often finds himself in trouble in his attempts to gain more knowledge. A Cure for Wellness doesn’t rely on jump scares, which it easily could have, but instead takes a more insidious route as Lockhart explores the center and gets into trouble. The things he begins to find aren’t so much horrifying as they are unsettling and disturbing.
To seemingly flesh out the history of the wellness center, Lockhart also briefly talks to a patient named Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie,) and she tells him about the lore behind the center grounds. Things begin to get a bit convoluted with the film’s backstory, and it is delivered in such a manner that you know it will play a larger role in the scheme of things. The choice to practically reveal what could have later been a big plot twist so early in the film ends up feeling disappointing when the film builds momentum in its last twenty minutes.
From the time Lockhart arrives at the wellness center up until about the last thirty to forty-five minutes, there’s a lot of visual fluff thrown into the mix. Some of it is for pure shock value and adds little to the story, such as Lockhart pulling his own tooth out of his head to a later scene where the center’s workers forcibly remove another of his teeth.
A scene where Lockhart is submerged in a tank of water for ‘therapy’ and finds himself surrounded by eels follows the film’s running theme of these mysterious eels and their presence at the center, but adds little to the story otherwise. Considering the large scale the eels play in the story’s arc, their on-screen presence is often more a reminder “hey, they’re using eels for this creepy stuff” rather than to add anything exciting to the plot.
In Lockhart’s attempts to locate Pembroke, he comes across the transfusion wing of the center and discovers the experimental procedures the residents have performed on them. The backstory Ms. Watkin’s told Lockhart about comes into play here, with Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) using the patients as filtration devices to derive life-restoring properties from the eels in the water, something it is believed the previous landowner discovered and tried to do. This filtered water is the ‘cure,’ with its side effects being an increased lifespan.
With not much time left in the film’s laborious runtime, it begins to hastily try to tie together the loose ends of its beginning, something that could’ve been done more carefully had some of the film’s superfluous bits been trimmed down. Lockhart discovers that his leg is not broken from the accident, and the center didn’t call his work to inform them he’d been in an accident like they’d said. One loose string was pulled, and then the entire charade of the wellness center begins to fall apart.
A Cure for Wellness begins to deliver and offer up some frights just as it comes to a climax. As eerie and disturbing as most of the events previous were, they quickly become tame in comparison to the perverse route the film takes. Interestingly, A Cure for Wellness would’ve been deeply unsettling and disturbing without its ending twisting into incest and gore, but the fact that it chose to take this route anyway makes the previous hour and a half seem like time wasted on light thrills. Rather than building up to the ultimate reveal, they’re easily shrugged off as “meh,” considering how much of a drastic turn the movie takes in a different direction.
Hannah has her first menstrual cycle and becomes a woman, and it is revealed that Volmer is her father, and they both are the aforementioned family Mrs. Watkins was speaking about. Now that Hannah is a woman, Volmer seeks an heir of pure blood and begins to force himself upon her. As expected, Lockhart interrupts, a fight occurs that unleashes a fire big enough to destroy the center without harming its residents, and Hannah kills her father, who falls into the aquifer and is consumed by the very eels he used to prolong his life. For being a psychological thriller, it’s fairly by the books.
A Cure for Wellness is slow to get started, and even when it does, it doesn’t feel like the time spent waiting was worth it. The film takes too jarring a turn in the end, and while all the pieces add up, it doesn’t feel like much of a puzzle to begin with.