A very visceral, arresting, cinematic exploration of the concept of, in the director Gore Verbinski’s own words, “sickness as a form of absolution”.
Disease can be hugely painful, debilitating, harmful, but it offers such a clear solution, a cure. There is such a focus and singularity to that; disease (at least, some) can ideally be cured. Being sick can absolve one of their usual level of responsibility.
The film initially seems to be exploring these ideas through the idea of cutthroat ambition being a sickness, a goal with singularity that one absolves their sins through. A business can justify cruelty as “just business”. Dane DeHaan plays an ambitious man of business, working in a world of cold sterility , and the gorgeous sanitarium he ends up travelling to in pursuit of a business-related task seems just an avenue to prod at this story thread. Touches like DeHaan’s characters crutches (an excellent tool for adding suspense to scenes), dreamlike animal imagery, and an off-kilter soundtrack all very much give the film a horror, or psychological thriller, vibe, but the ultimate statement of the film doesn’t seem to be anything stranger than “ambition is a sickness”, and the plot doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere weirder than any other film set in a sanitarium.
That doesn’t last. The film morphs into something much stranger, more disturbing, and more interesting. Verbinski has said “I think that Western narratives in general tend to kind of apply logic police. Everything has to be, well how does this work? How did that work? We let go in this genre, we open up more”, a statement I couldn’t agree with more, and I was very pleased to see the film turn more surreal, more ambitious, and more visceral.
The plot is besides the point, it’s the descent into depravity, horror, trauma that nonetheless leads to ultimately a reclamation of objective reality and truth, that the film culminates and feels at its most cohesive.
The film isn’t perfect – it’s repetitive and overlong in a way that doesn’t feel like it reinforces any of the story’s themes, and some of the more shlock-y elements don’t always marry up well with the more inspired surreal touches. But even setting the story aside, there’s a lot to love. Dane DeHaan fits his role perfectly, Mia Goth embodies her character’s peculiar status with a lot of humanity, and Jason Isaacs does a fantastic job selling the many facets of his character. The score covers a wide range of musical styles very well. The locations are beautiful and Verbinski often finds creative compositions in framing them. It’s a very well-made film, and the oddity of it having such backing behind it when it’s a very bizarre original property is heartening for fans of original cinema.
It can be comforting to push unpleasant memories away, to slink from painful truths. It can be comforting to displace concerns and ennui onto externalities like disease. But what the film seems to state, as said by Verbinski, is that “the thing about denial is that inevitability keeps marching forward, the truth keeps marching on”. Self-actualising in such a way as to stop relying on projections and infantilisations might not be comfortable, but that acceptance of the lack of a real “cure” for the discomforts of life might ironically be the closest thing to a “cure” there is.
I give the film four eels, and a deer.