Gothic stories are a personal favorite of mine, from classic novels to their film renditions and beyond. They are often melancholy tales of loss, sadness, madness, and love. They also feature violent, insane characters obsessed with something or someone that drives the mystery of the story. Gothic tales are deeply disturbing and get under your skin slowly, quietly. Though the genre is rare these days, A Cure for Wellness definitely belongs to the Gothic classification. It hits all the literary marks of classic Gothic genre, but delivered in a sleek and modern way. Perhaps Neo-Gothic is the more appropriate label. I certainly hope it will be something that spurs more productions like it.
Why I would label it Neo-Gothic is simply for its combination of the old and new. The production design is a marriage of sleek modernity in clean lines, starkly contrasting lighting and color, with and baroque romanticism and antiquity. It takes place in our present day, but there are references to 200 years ago, which would have been the golden years of Gothic literature and culture. The lovely musical score also takes on this union of traditional piano or romantic composition, and dispersing it with moments of modern synthesizing and more cutting sounds. Even the names of the characters, Lockhart and Pembroke for example, bring a very classic tone to the narrative. I’m kind of obsessed with the name Lockhart, so I love that they chose it.
Along with my love for Gothic tales comes a particular love for the setting of the asylum. I think we are fixated on asylums in Western culture for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I believe it is our regret and shock of now knowing the horrors that they housed in early science and medicine. Secondly, I think it’s because of their mysterious nature. The asylum, especially in this film, is like a magician’s box. We watch our protagonist go in to something that we can obviously see is a trap, a place no one should want to be. They walk into this trap, and we wait eagerly to see them come out of it.
People keep giving this film a hard time for its longer runtime, but I didn’t feel like it was too long at all. Maybe it’s because I personally desire things that take their time and really usher me in to the world and what is happening. This story indeed could have been shorter, so could a lot of things, but I do not think length is its crime. It is a slow simmer than suddenly comes to a boil, and that’s part of what makes it unique. The thrills are subtle. You aren’t necessarily going to jump out of your seat, but there are definitely some horrifying and disturbing elements that made me bring my sleeves up to my eyes more than a couple of times.
We are brought into a story that is highly symbolic, particularly the symbol of water. In most stories, water is a symbol of life, the womb, vitality, youthfulness. This story is the exact opposite of Tuck Everlasting, or the Fountain of Youth. Here we see water used to drain that vitality and youthfulness, to wither fertility and life. A lot of Gothic stories revolve around vampires, and there is an inherent vampirism here too in both the characters and the history of the asylum.
Another common Gothic theme is the coming of age and the angelic heroine. Here it is the coming of age for a young woman named Hannah. There are a lot of motifs of budding sensuality and sexual awakening. A lot of films or stories can really overdo this subject, but I appreciated Gore Verbinski’s approach by using the key visuals or moments to relay the message. Something as small as a stick of red lipstick holds so much meaning for the character’s journey.
Speaking of Gore Verbinski (director of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring), his technical work is masterful here. I loved the way he executed the cinematography and emotional visuals in The Ring, and he kicked that same imagery into overdrive for this film. It’s tremendously visual, flirting with perfection in my opinion. There are so many shots and moments that are just pure, frame-worthy art.
I think Verbinski is far better suited to a film like this, rather than his Pirates of the Carribbean films. I can’t believe the studios gave him the money to make a film like this, but I am certainly glad they did. Though, because it has not reviewed well overall, I do not think that will become the trend.
I am a huge advocate for supporting films created by original screenplays, even at the risk of them not being “good” movies because our culture desperately needs new perspectives and ideas in storytelling. I am not against franchises or sequels, but we are utterly exhausted with them. We must allow ourselves to be refreshed by the bizarre and unexpected.
As far as criticisms go, I only have a few to note. There is definitely a huge amount of foreshadowing that makes the mystery side of things solvable in about five minutes. I don’t overly mind that, personally. I still enjoyed seeing the parchment unfold even if I knew what was coming. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s nice to watch something because you know what is going to happen. After all, that is exactly why all our favorite films have us returning over and over again. However, I recognize that it is kind of a weaker trait in storytelling.
I am a little uneasy with *some* of the content. There were a couple of awkward, even unnecessary, scenes of that left me scratching my head in regard to their significance with the rest of the story. There’s also a scene of sexual assault, which I feel a need to warn people about in case of triggering. I will also admit I was a little disappointed with the use of CGI stuff toward the end, and there’s a generally odd implication given in the last shot of the film that I’m still not sure about. I’d have to ask Verbinski, I guess. These things didn’t ruin the film for me, but I feel like they could have been done a little differently. I guess creeping people out is the point, though.
If you’re a willing patient, dive into to this deliciously macabre movie that will certainly have you looking twice at your next glass of water. This film is sure to be polarizing in response, and I fully acknowledge it will not be everyone’s cup of tea in terms of content or story, but no one can deny it is an exquisite, masterfully crafted production. It definitely could have used some narrative tweaking at points, but I commend it for aiming outside the box and nudging viewers out of their comfort zone, even if they may not fully understand what they just saw as they exit the auditorium.