On first watching A Cure For Wellness most viewers will be clear on how the “wellness center” is actually a nefarious front for a mad scientist’s plans for immortality. That Hannah is the mad scientist, Volmer’s, daughter. And that Volmer’s trying to have a “pure” bloodline by eventually procreating with his daughter. Gross. Ultimately, Lockhart defeats Volmer and escapes with Hannah.
Within that story, there are a lot of details that are explained but part of so much noise that it’s easy to miss them. For example, the backstory of Volmer and his sister-wife. The exact nature of the eels. How’s the immortality work? What was up with Lockhart’s visions? Oh, and was Lockhart’s company important? Almost all of that is plot that’s pretty easy to get answers on from any summary (like wikipedia).
What’s not so clear is that last moment, with Lockhart peddling, smiling madly. Why end there?
The point of endings
Movies are typically made of two essential things. Characters and plot. Good movies introduce us to characters and plot points then develop them until they reach a positive or negative conclusion (sometimes both). This is what story-guru Robert McKee describes as a “change in charge”. To simplify it…If something starts great, then it ends bad. If it starts bad, it ends great.
In McKee’s own words:
A SCENE is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a STORY EVENT.
Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?
If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.
Why then is the scene in the story? The answer is almost certain to be “exposition.” It’s there to convey information about characters, world, or history to the eavesdropping audience. If exposition is a scene’s sole justification, a disciplined writer will trash it and weave its information into the film elsewhere.
No scene that doesn’t turn. This is our ideal. We work to round every scene from beginning to end by turning a value at stake in a character’s life from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive. Adherence to this principle may be difficult, but it’s by no means impossible.
I like to think that in addition to what McKee has said that there’s further nuance when you look at the ending of movies. Are plot and character given equal emphasis? Or is one emphasized more than the other?
A movie like Star Wars: A New Hope tends to emphasize the plot changing due to character actions rather than the characters changing due to their action. Luke is essentially the same Luke. Leia the same Leia. Han the same Han. But there’s been a huge change in the plot. The Empire had been untouchable and on the brink of having the weapon to control the galaxy unchallenged. But by the end, the Rebels have destroyed the weapon, leaving the Empire completely vulnerable. That’s a huge shift in momentum and “change in charge” from the beginning of the movie.
While all the characters in A New Hope do have scenes that result in shifts from positive to negative or vice versa, by the end of the movie none of the characters have really changed. That’s okay because the important thing wasn’t the character development…it was the story.
Compare that to something like Groundhog Day. Phil Connors is an egotistical jerk who, for reasons he never discovers, has to relive the same day over and over again. By the end of the movie, time resumes its normal course. February 2nd becomes February 3rd. But Phil Connors is not the same Phil Connors. He is a nicer person. A more selfless person. A more refined and intelligent person. There’s a clear change in charge to his character rather than his situation. We don’t get any resolution about why he relived the same day. And while that may disappoint some people…it’s not necessary because the important thing wasn’t the plot…it was the character development.
Then you have a movie like The Waterboy. The main character is Bobby Boucher. At the start of the movie, Bobby is 31-years old, with no formal education, and full of social and confidence issues because his overbearing mother limits the life Bobby has. By the end of the movie, he’s a star college football player, no longer socially challenged, with lots of confidence. He went from living in his mama’s house to getting married and going to start his own life. Both the character and situation have had a change in charge.
None of this is to say one is better than the other. Or the the best movies “do both”. It’s just something to recognize when trying to understand the aim of a movie. So what’s the aim of The Cure for Wellness?
Knowing what we know now about endings, what do you think Cure is doing?
Has the plot/situation undergone a change in charge?
While the wellness center has fallen into ruin, that wasn’t the main plot point, was it? The call to action for Lockhart was to save his job. Which is why it makes sense that his bosses show up at the very end, demanding answers from Lockhart. And what’s he do?
He peddles away. Clearly, he no longer cares about his job. He has Hannah and the bike. Otherwise, no money. No worldly possessions. Most would consider this a dire situation. But rather than showing that kind of negative emotion, Lockhart smiles. He smiles that terrifying, too-wide smile most of us associate with the Joker or an anime villain.
The impression I come away with is the point of the movie wasn’t the wellness center and what went on there, it was exploring the journey necessary to turn a success-driven corporate millennial like Lockhart into someone who throws away his career-path for something more…bohemian.
In this case, “wellness” could be the typical American life that Fight Club rails against so heartily. By the end of the movie, Lockhart would be, in a way, cured. He no longer needs to be a drone in the system. Or, as someone with his ambition, the one programming the system. He’s gone rogue. It’s meaningful that corporate life caused Lockhart’s dad to commit suicide and we saw the person in the very beginning pass away in the office. So. I feel pretty confident in “wellness” having something to do with this capitalistic, first-world life most of us live.
So was Lockhart cured in the end?
I think there’s two ways of viewing this.
If we’re being critical, then I don’t necessarily think the movie provides a satisfactory answer to Lockhart being cured. His riding away is too vague. All it tells us is, “He’s thrown away his previous life and is embarking on something new!” But we don’t know what that new is. If Cure for Wellness had another 5-10 minutes that showed us what Lockhart and Hannah were up to now that Lockhart had been “cured”…then the movie would be making a more concrete argument about what is and what isn’t “cured” and what is and what isn’t “wellness”. Is it living in the woods, off the land? Is it being an artist and having a career as an artist? Is it being an artist who doesn’t have a career but makes enough just to get by and be happy? Is it being part of a commune where everyone looks out for one another?
If we’re giving the benefit of the doubt, then the cure for what society thinks is wellness is madness. Wellness, in this scenario, stands for being part of a society, and that all society’s (whether it’s the corporate world or a wellness center) have their own trappings. The only escape is to lose your sense of reality. The cure for wellness, for politeness, for agreement, for acceptance…is to be unwell. This concept is more in-line with Lockhart’s final moments. I mean…seriously…look at his face.
I’m leaning towards the madness angle. That the movie presents this idea of being part of various systems and that those systems want to control the individual. To be a healthy part of that system means to subjugate yourself to its rules. That’s what makes you “well”. With Lockhart rejecting the systems, rejecting even sanity—he’s found his cure.
Let me know what you think!