Editor’s note: major spoilers for “A Cure for Wellness” and “Crimson Peak”
When I went to go see “A Cure for Wellness”, what I got was not what I expected. Directed by Gore Verbinski, known for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, ”Rango,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “The Ring,” this film could’ve gone a lot of places. But where it ended up taking me was a place of intense discomfort and a desire for the film to end, so I could finally relax.
The trailer touts a somewhat experimental take on the “Am I crazy or is all this nonsense real?” trope. You do get a little bit of that sprinkled in, but there is also a lot of pretty aesthetics with novel sound design (I mean, “Pirates of the Caribbean does look and sound phenomenal, whether or not you actually like the movie). However, ultimately, the narrative falls into some traps that prevent the story from living up to the visuals.
The story centers on Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young executive sent to a wellness center in the Swiss Alps to bring back a board member gone rogue. As Lockhart found himself stuck there, he begins to notice how everything is a bit off. After way too much movie, the big reveal happens and we learn that Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the head doctor, has been alive for centuries and manufactured the whole situation so he could procreate with his own daughter. Hannah (Mia Goth), his daughter is unaware of all of this and doesn’t even know Volmer is her father, and Volmer’s sister was her mother. Boiled down, the plot is completely bonkers. If you need something a little more coherent, you can check of the Wikipedia page here.
Now this film has an amalgam of problems: The infantilization yet concurrent sexualization of Hannah, the questionable take on mental health, there’s plenty to criticize.
What I want to focus on is the use of incest.
Incest storylines have become almost commonplace in mainstream media. “Crimson Peak”, a gothic horror, had the reason that an incestual storyline is a fixture of the genre, “Game of Thrones” is essentially pushed into being because of Cersei & Jamie, “Bates Motel” creates complex family relations based on incest and an incestuous feeling mother/son relationship.
However, sometimes it can be used in a gimmicky way just to make the audience uncomfortable. The first season of “True Detective” choose to place a criminal in a sexual relationship with his cousin to further solidify his creepiness, even though his pedophilia was more than enough. “Split” used it as an easy way to explain the ‘brokenness’ of one of its main characters. Sometimes just the suggestion of incest is used to push a story forward. But “A Cure for Wellness” takes it to a whole new level.
First, there is the tale of Volmer and his sister, the way he talks about her and how when the townspeople turned against them, they punished her by cutting her baby out and then burned her to death. Second, the one that upset me the most, was, once Hannah “matured,” Volmer dresses her up, reveals himself as her father, takes her to a room underground which he made into a shrine to her mother/his sister bedroom. What proceeds is a graphic scene where he sexually assaults her before Lockhart comes down and stops him before he rapes her.
Basically, Gore Verbinski seems to want to cause peak discomfort in the audience and does so by hitting any button he can think of. It’s exploitative, which isn’t a great direction for any film. Reminiscent of “torture porn” franchises (think “Saw”), something shouldn’t be pushed forward just for the sake of being subversive or different or off-putting. At the very least, if someone is going to use particular narratives, there needs to be a narrative-based for it and not just a cheap tactic to surprise or confuse the audience.
This idea is directly related to how rape is portrayed in media. Hannah and her mother were sexually assaulted by Volmer, which makes this narrative a double, but it all comes back to the same problem. Shock-value isn’t a reason to include something in a narrative, especially something as sensitive as rape or incest. Many showrunners and writers are doubling down and saying they will no longer back scripts that use rape as a shock.
I’m just getting tired of all this nonsense. There needs to be a point where we can stop pointing out how this keeps happening because there has been a shift/change is media. Can we get that shift soon rather than later? It would make me unbelievably happy.