A Cure for Wellness
Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 10 Feb 2017 (General release)
UK theatrical: 20 Jan 2017 (General release)
“There is a cure,” promises the official website for the new movie, A Cure for Wellness. Echoing the deceptive advertising proffered by the Swiss facility that serves as the film’s primary setting, the phrase is at once succinct and vague, identifying neither the cure nor the condition it might address. In advertising the film, 20th Century Fox turned out to be too clever by half, mounting its own fake news campaign across the internet, including references to Trump and Putin and a Utah bill that plans to jail women for having abortions.
The campaign mimicked fake news, which in turn mimics not fake news, on fake sites with names like “The Sacramento Dispatch” and “New York Morning Post”, promulgating click-bait headlines, claiming that the AMA is classifying “Trump Depression Disorder” as a disease, Lady Gaga was planning a “Muslim tribute” for her Super Bowl halftime show, or Trump was denying California federal funds for the broken dam to punish the state for supporting sanctuary cities.
This is the thing about fake news: it can sound not fake. The Fox campaign exploited that, and it was slick. But the campaign is also done, having been panned even before the movie was reviewed (and also mostly panned). “Marketing Experts Slam ‘Monumentally Stupid’ Fake News Promos for ‘A Cure for Wellness’,” reports Variety. Shortly following, the New York Times’ Business Day section writes, “20th Century Fox Gives Real Apology for a Fake News Campaign”.
According to an unnamed studio spokesperson, “In raising awareness for our films, we do our best to push the boundaries of traditional marketing in order to creatively express our message to consumers. In this case, we got it wrong.” That’s one way to describe it. Following the upset over its exploitation of what might be termed real concerns over fake news (say, readers who might believe a story like Pizzagate), Fox redirected the fake news links back to the movie’s official site.
It’s fair to say that neither the apology nor the redirection addresses the problem of fake news, which is to say, how consumers can know what’s fake or not fake, or how it matters if they don’t know. It’s not the job of A Cure for Wellness or Fox to address, much less solve that problem, of course.
Still, and alas, Fox’s unfortunate campaign—even the idea of it—is exponentially more interesting than the film it meant to promote. Where the campaign might have been slick and cynical, A Cure for Wellness is preposterous and predictable. It opens on a New York City executive as he’s dying, which is to say, clutching his heart while working late. His vacancy means that the significantly named and terminally ambitious Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is dispatched by the dead man’s firm to fetch another executive, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from a Swiss facility where he’s holed up. The letter from Pembroke doesn’t bode well. “A man cannot un-see the truth,” he writes to his fellow suits by way of explaining why he’s not coming back to work. “We build, we buy, we consume, we wrap ourselves in the illusion of material success.”
Oh, that illusion again. Lockhart assures his bosses (who include the great Carl Lumbly, relegated to looking sinister and little else), that he’ll return Pembroke to the fold in a matter of hours. You know better, even if Lockhart does not. The wellness center is populated by mostly white and all wealthy old people who drink a particular water, play croquet, wear white uniforms, and accept without question “treatments” in sensory deprivation tanks involving slithery eels. “You’re here for the cure?” asks an inmate. “No,” insists Lockhart, “I’m just visiting.” Mm-hmm. The place is overseen by the obviously odious Heinrich Volmer (Jason Issacs), who’s soon hovering over the bedridden Lockhart as the young man comes to consciousness after a frankly spectacular traffic accident when the car taking him down the mountain from the facility careens off the road and flips over several times.
Now on crutches, Lockhart maintains his commitment to his mission, trusting Volmer to contact his employers to let them know he’s running late. Again, it appears that, as cocky as Lockhart may be, he’s never seen American Horror Story or read a tabloid headline. His naïvete is confirmed when he spots the only young person in sight at the center, Hannah (Mia Goth), looking as pale and ghastly and inscrutable as you’d expect under the circumstances. Hannah tells Lockhart that Volmer has promised she’ll be healthy enough to leave the center one day soon, something he’s been telling her all her short life.
As Lockhart shifts his focus from finding Pembroke to rescuing Hannah, he adopts a posture that’s less than heroic. Whether hobbling from room to room on his crutches or spying on a maintenance man who appears to be moving bodies on a gurney late at night, Lockhart doesn’t piece together any of the clues that seem plainly connected. His slowness on the uptake leaves the movie to fill up time, offering a series of spooky hallways and pretty vistas, alarming close-ups of baleful nurses and long takes of Hannah’s lovely uncomprehending face.
Lockhart doesn’t quite see the truth in her face, or in the observations made by older residents, which means he doesn’t quite need to un-see it. You, however, see plenty. You see Lockhart go along with treatments that are plainly risky, with stories that are conspicuously deceitful, and you wonder why. He seems bright, if caddish, he’s had experiences that might have taught him lessons, indicated in a few flashbacks (specifically having to do with his mother’s fading health and death). But he’s still not quick enough, and so he’s prone to misreading.
So here’s a theory: it’s possible that A Cure for Wellness is in itself a movie about fake news, that your frustration with Lockhart’s failure to recognize obvious lies and respond to them as such is the movie’s effort to fake you out. Yes, you’re used to seeing movies where you feel smarter than your protagonist. These can lead you to feel superior or bored or both. Here, Lockhart occupies that position: he arrives at the center, sure he’s smarter than everyone he meets and he’s decidedly unimpressed by the beauty of the environs and the wealth of the residents. He assumes he knows what he’s seeing, that he’s an adept reader of his world, that he can tell real from fake. And yet, he cannot.
This sounds like a lesson you might learn, that you might sort out how to be a good reader by observing and critiquing a bad reader. But that’s the trick of fake news, isn’t it? Fake news allows you—even invites you—to think you’re smart, that you can sort out lies and know what’s real even when you don’t.
Then again, maybe this theory is not true, either. Maybe A Cure for Wellness isn’t offering this lesson at all, maybe it’s not playing a game where it’s four moves ahead of you. Maybe it’s just what it appears to be, an unpersuasive fiction about a young man who’s just about as smart as you and just about as good or bad a reader as you. He can’t tell what’s real and fake. Maybe you can’t either. Maybe there’s no cure for that.