In A Cure for Wellness, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is an up-and-coming Wall Street stockbroker whose only drive—surprise, surprise—is money. By most standards, he has it all figured out: he's handsome, successful and confident. But soon after the movie begins, it becomes apparent he's far from well.
We got to interview the movie's director, Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean), about how Lockhart's "condition," as it were, is a reflection of our own.
Today, society dictates that the path to a successful life begins with pursuing grand career ambitions. If you lack ambition, you're aimless, lost. But there's a toxicity to being consumed by money, which some people hold in higher regard than anything else.
This idea—and the idea of wellness—provided Gore and screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) inspiration for the film, which, according to Haythe, "concerns the pollution of our minds and bodies in the modern world and our obsession with purity as a result of that."
These themes fit perfectly in the horror genre, which Verbinski said gives him more flexibility to play around with images and concepts. One concept Verbinski is particularly fond of is experimenting on the audience. In other words, are you sure what's occurring on screen isn't happening to you, too?
"Horror is one of those genres where you get to conduct a psychological experiment on the audience," Gore Verbinski told TechnoBuffalo in an interview. "In our movie, Dane's character Lockhart reluctantly becomes a patient at this sanitarium. But really you're the patient in the darkened room."
The diagnosis, as Verbinski sees it, is our unhealthy drive for wealth and power. Lockhart is the perfect example because, early on in the movie, it's clear he has a one-track mind for getting ahead. Been that way all his life. But that singular focus comes at the cost of his health and humanity, which brings up the question of wellness.
When the movie begins, Lockhart is sent to a remote Alpine medical spa to retrieve his company's CEO, Pembroke, who left New York after a mental breakdown. Now, instead of crunching numbers 14 hours a day, his daily routine is filled with massages, hot baths, and trips to the sauna. It almost seems like paradise.
Which is why Pembroke doesn't want to leave. In fact, we find out nobody ever leaves. But is that because the sanitarium is a nice place to be or are the patients not improving? Carefully, masterfully, what Verbinski initially presents to be a serene and tranquil place suddenly takes on a very sinister veneer.
"The movie is really about two worlds," Verbinski said. "As Lockhart arrives at this place, he's entering more of a dream logic. He's leaving the waking state. We tried to create the sense that the narrative itself was that black spot on your X-ray, or that invisible force. Things can remain enigmatic because you sense there's some other force, something inevitable happening," Verbinski said. "To me, that's the big tease—to try to make everything feel like there's this sickness that's not going away."
As the movie unfolds, the audience experiences Lockhart's mounting anxiety, which verges on madness the longer he stays at the sanitarium. When he eventually becomes a patient at the medical spa, the audience is right along for the ride as he endures Dr. Volmer's terrifying treatments, which includes sensory deprivation and a very unfortunate encounter with eels.
"As a society, things are becoming increasingly irrational," Verbinski said. "I think we know that and there's a sense of denial. We're preying upon a very contemporary fear."
So what's the cure? What happens when you give yourself over to ambitions and selfish desires for the sole purpose of acquiring wealth? Would you do morally questionable things to get what you want?
In addition to ambition, another theme the movie toys with is the whole industry of wellness, which Verbinski says preys upon people who are vulnerable.
"The sanitarium is offering a kind of diagnosis," Verbinski explained. "Almost as a form of absolution. These people are not responsible because they're not well. That's a sort of opiate. These people who come here are sort of holding onto their illness. But what if the cure is worse than the disease? This place preys upon oligarchs and heads of industry. The idea was to try to hand pick the people who come to this place."
In the film, the patients never leave because they simply don't get better. It's a great con, Verbinski says, designed to keep people just well enough but not well enough to fully be cured.
Verbinski said he ultimately didn't want the film to provide a straightforward answer for what the cure is. But he wanted to encourage a discussion about what he sees is ailing society, and for people to take a moment to step back and ask what it means to lead a life that's examined and meaningful.
It's an existential question that's wrapped up in a deeply fascinating film, one that Verbinski crafted to comment on wellness, modern man and blind ambition. Lockhart may seem unwell when we meet him in A Cure for Wellness. But we're just as in need of a cure as he is.
"We are exploring there being a sickness that we are in denial of," Verbinski said. "It is perhaps the sickness of the modern man."
A Cure for Wellness hits theaters this Friday.