From the director who brought you the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, comes a psychological thriller that will keep you at the edge of your seat wondering “Why hasn’t the film ended yet? Isn’t it time I left the seat?”. Don’t fret, I’m not here to bash the film. That said, A Cure for Wellness is a half decent film but you can’t help thinking this is Shutter Island gone terribly wrong. Without further ado, here’s the explanation of the plot and ending of the film A Cure For Wellness, spoilers ahead.
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A Cure For Wellness: Plot Explanation
200 years ago. The Baron.
Let’s start from the beginning. Over 200 years before the events in the film there was a castle in Switzerland where a Baron once lived. He was very particular about his bloodline and didn’t want any mixing. He decides that his own sister has to be the one to bear their child. People who watch Game of Thrones are probably thinking “hey, that’s normal, right?”. However, the Baron’s sister is unable to conceive. She’s infertile. The Baron begins looking for a cure and experiments on the town’s people. Slowly the town starts finding dried up corpses of missing people. They figure that the Baron is behind this. Just then the Baron succeeds in impregnating his sister and she’s coming along “well” in her maternity… about as well as one can be carrying ones own brother’s child and needs to be supported by the lifeforce of random victims from town.
The people of the town march to the castle and burn it down. They burn the Baron. They cut the fetus out of his sister and burn her too. They throw the fetus in the aquifer. Now here’s the deal, somehow, that fetus survives. Yeah, a fetus ripped out of a human and thrown into water with eels survives. We aren’t given details on how this happens. Let’s talk about the eels and the water for a bit here.
Eels And The Water
Now the eels that live in this water are typically a breed that survives for about a dozen years. In the aquifer, however, they can live for 300 years. The water bears properties that help the eels live a much longer life. The same water is toxic to humans. The Baron used the town’s people to experiment on. He found out that when the water is properly filtered through the human body, it can be distilled down to its life-giving essence.
Given that the Baron and his sister had been consuming the life-giving essence of the water for a while, two things resulted from this. The Baron has his face burnt off but he still survives and goes into hiding. Since the Baroness’ insides were torn out and then she was burnt, she didn’t make it. But the life-giving essence she was administered had an effect on the fetus. The fetus survives. Also, the eels were probably like “hey, this fetus has a bit of us too”. The Baron locates the fetus and disappears. He names the fetus Hannah.
Baron and Hannah
Through the years, he covers his face in bandage and lives on with Hannah. He continues having the life-giving serum. He administers it to Hannah too. A couple of centuries pass. The Baron continues to assume different identities and lives on. So does Hannah. But she’s a little girl, she has no idea of her origins. Here’s the other disgusting bit. Volmer plans on having a child with Hannah once she comes of age. Again, if you have been watching Game of Thrones, this should feel right at home.
200 years later, the mystical spa is eventually built by the Baron who by now has taken on a different face and name. The Baron goes by the name of Director Volmer, the owner of the sanitarium. The Spa or the Sanitarium as they call it is nothing different from the centre for experimentation on eels and people. The Baron (as Director Volmer) continues to further his experiments. He uses this knowledge to get humans and filter the water to distill out the life-giving essence. Only now, he doesn’t use humans by force. He tricks the rich and the wealthy folks who have nothing in their lives other than money. The spa lures the ones who are quite successful but hollow on the inside. These people have no one in the world that really cares for them. These people are told that they are being “cured” from their empty state of existence. The water is poisonous to all these humans who are consuming it. It makes them hallucinate. The constant pampering and the fake stress-free existence makes them all believe that they are being cured by the water they are consuming.
The movie begins here…
Roland Pembroke is the CEO of a large financial services company. Pembroke has achieved much success in his career but has no one in his life. This is the kind of people the mystical spa attracts. Pembroke decides he’s going to go this spa to get some meaning to his life again. Once he’s at the spa, he’s put on the hydrotreatment. Over the weeks, the treatment gives him illusions that he needs to exit his prior life completely and just stay back at the spa. He writes a letter to his colleague Morris. The letter reads:
A man cannot unsee the truth. He cannot willingly return to darkness or go blind once he has the gift of sight any more than he can be unborn. We are the only species capable of self-reflection. The only species with the toxin of self-doubt written into our genetic code. Unequal to our gifts, we build, we buy, we consume. We wrap ourselves in the illusion of material success. We cheat and deceive as we claw our way to the pinnacle of what we define as achievement. Superiority to other men. There is a sickness inside us. Rising like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats. It’s there in every one of you seated around the table. We deny its existence until one day the body rebels against the mind and screams out, “I am not a well man”. No doubt you will think only of the merger. That unclean melding of two equally diseased institutions. But the truth cannot be ignored. For only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure. I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again.
Morris is dead, do Lockhart must go
As Morris reads the letter, he suffers a heart attack and dies. This is the opening scene of the film. The company is going through the process of a merger which will make them one of the biggest firms on the Eastern Seaboard. However, their books have certain irregularities and the board needs someone to take a fall for this. They also need the CEO to sign to have the deal go through. Given the nature of the letter, the board finds that it will be easy to pin the irregularities on someone who is clearly insane. While initially, the plan was to send Morris to go get Pembroke from the far-off spa, and given he’s dead and everything, they plan to send Lockhart to go get him.
Lockhart and his father’s story:
Lockhart is young and ambitious and is promoted to take up Morris’ post. He’s given the “corner office”. When Lockhart was young, his father (Henry) committed suicide by jumping off a bridge as Lockhart watched on from the backseat of the car. Lockhart grows up with his mother. He’s driven by success and doesn’t want to end up like his father (weak). But his attachment to his career distances him from his mother. He keeps his mother in an old age home and occasionally visits her. She eventually dies but before that she gives him a ballerina doll she makes. She mentions that the ballerina lives in a dream. But she’s dancing because she doesn’t know she’s dreaming. A thing to know here is that Henry commits suicide because Pembroke and his people made him the fall guy. They pinned some financial irregularities on Henry because he was an easy target. That drove Henry to eventually jump off the bridge. This bit of the information comes later on in the film.
Lockhart at the Spa
Lockhart has closed a certain account (Reynolds) by fudging the books. The board members know of this fudging and use this information to force Lockhart to go and get Pembroke from the spa. Lockhart has no option but to go. He leaves for Switzerland. On the way up, the cab driver talks about the Baron and the story of the villagers burning the Baron’s sister and the fort. They reach the spa but because it is after visiting hours, Lockhart talks to the manager, Mr. Pieterson, and demands that he meets Pembroke right away. He also tells that he expects to take Pembroke back with him. Pieterson tells Lockhart that he will make Pembroke available after 7 PM. Lockhart is given a glass of water. After drinking it he locates a small parasitic bug. This small bug is a baby eel.
The Filtering / Distillation Process at the Spa
Here’s what I feel the process is. The people at the spa are constantly asked to drink plenty of water. The water has parasites in the form of infant eels in it (like what Lockhart finds). Once the eels are inside the body they grow in there. After a while, the people are taken and placed into cylindrical tanks. Here they are put through a dehydration process. Via their bodies, sweat is extracted and finally distilled into small blue bottles. This happens repeatedly over multiple sitting. Eventually, the person dies due to dehydration. It’s disgusting, yes, but we’ll get back to this a little later.
The Accident and Volmer
Lockhart leaves the spa and heads to a hotel. Lockhart sees a pretty girl standing in the Spa. Right after, his car meets with an accident. They hit a deer and the car goes off road. This is no accident. The management of the Spa intends to not let Lockhart leave. Lockhart wakes up back in the spa. He notices that his leg is in a cast. Volmer shows up and tells Lockhart that his leg was broken. He tells Lockhart that he’s been unconscious for three days. Volmer also mentions that he has called Lockhart’s office and has told them about the accident and that they have said: “that business can wait and Lockhart’s health cannot”. Ok, so none of that is true. Lockhart has not broken his leg, the cast is put just to give the illusion. Lockhart has been kept unconscious for 3 days so that he doesn’t create a problem for them. They have not informed his office either.
Lockhart starts snooping around and sneaks his way into the steam bath. Here he begins to look for Pembroke. Here, he sees pathways close up and reappear. These visions are because of the water he’s being administered. The eels are beginning to have this effect on Lockhart. Eventually, he meets Pembroke. He urges him to go back to New York. He tells him about the merger and how Pembroke’s signature is required. Pembroke refuses by saying that he’s not well. He also tells Lockhart about what they did to his father. Pembroke finally agrees to go back to New York.
Volmer later meets with Lockhart and they discuss the history of the place. Lockhart steals Pembroke’s file. Lockhart meets with a few of the other rich people including one Mrs. Watkins who is taken in for her treatment. Lockhart later meets the pretty girl. She says her name is Hannah and that she is a special patient at the spa. She has a little vial around her next and says that those are vitamins that she needs to take. Hannah at this point doesn’t know that she is the daughter of Volmer. She also doesn’t know that the vial contains the life-giving serum which has kept her from aging for almost two centuries. Hannah tells Lockhart that no one ever leaves the spa.
Lockhart demands for Pembroke
When Lockhart goes back to fetch Pembroke, Volmer tells him that Pembroke’s health has regressed due to the talk of business matters. Volmer is lying. Lockhart tells Volmer that he’s running a sham. That rich people are paying through their nose for just water. Lockhart mentions this “I came to get Pembroke back to New York and that’s what I’m gonna do if I have to hit him over his head and drag him out by his hair”. Of course, Lockhart means this only as a form of expression but this gets him into trouble later on. Lockhart begins to bleed from his nose. This again is his body reacting to the eels in the water. Volmer and Lockhart also discuss Hannah who Volmer says is a special case. And that Hannah didn’t utter her first word till she was 11. Volmer also tells Lockhart that he ran a few tests on him after the accident and tells him that his body is under tremendous strain. Volmer offers him hydrotherapy as he waits for Pembroke. Lockhart accepts.
The treatment starts with Lockhart being put in a large tank filled with water and given an oxygen tube to breathe from. He’s told that he may encounter some visions. Lockhart remembers his father committing suicide. Soon he sees eels swimming in the water and struggles to get out and almost dies. But he’s saved by the wanking doctor. I believe that there were no real eels in the water at this point. This episode happens in Lockhart’s mind and the visions are created thanks to the water he’s been consuming. When they get Lockhart out of the tank, he sees that there is nothing in the water.
Next day, Mrs. Watkins and Lockhart talk about the Baron and his sister from two centuries ago. But Watkins adds that the villagers burned down the place because of the many experiments that were being conducted on the peasants. That people went missing and these bodies were later found emancipated and disfigured. Mrs. Watson is taken away for her “treatment”. This treatment she’s being taken away for is none other than the Filtering / Distillation Process.
Lockhart and Hannah hit town
Lockhart meets Hannah again. He offers Hannah the ballerina that his mother gives him in exchange for being taken to the town on her cycle. They go to the town pub. They order beers This is the first time Hannah is with a young boy in town. Lockhart meets the cab driver and asks if there is any doctor in town. There is a vet nearby.
Hannah has beer for the first time and Lockhart tastes a drop from Hannah’s vial. Lockhart says “Ugh. Tastes like sweaty seafood”. Right, now, read that again. Seafood = eel. Sweat = human sweat. So as disgusting as the Filtration process might be, it’s indicated here that filtrate is concentrated human sweat containing eel essence.
Lockhart goes to meet the vet. Shows him Pembroke’s records. The vet tells him that Pembroke is suffering from chronic dehydration. Lockhart is surprised because all they do in the spa is drink water, or so he thinks. He also connects the findings of dried up bodies back in the days of the Baron. The vet says that was 200 years ago. Lockhart feels there is a connection. The vet also tells Lockhart that the Baron’s sister was not sick, that she was infertile. The vet then proceeds to put a cow out of its misery. The cow was lost and ended up drinking drainage water. When he cuts it, eels come falling out of its stomach along with a stillborn.
New York has no clue about Lockhart
Lockhart makes a call to New York to check for any pre-existing conditions that Pembroke might have had. Along with finding out that Pembroke was a health nut, he also realizes that New York has no clue about the accident or why Lockhart has not returned. Lockhart understands that Volmer was lying to him.
Volmer interrupts the party
Meanwhile, Hannah goes to use the restroom and she sees a bunch of girls. They ask Hannah for a tampon. Obviously, Hannah has no clue. She comes back outside and looks at the jukebox. One of the guys standing there fancies Hannah and gives her a coin which she uses to play music. She begins to sway to the music. Hannah is facing all of these adult experiences for the first time in her life. Lockhart returns and ends up in a fight with the guy. The fight is stopped by Volmer who arrives to take back Hannah and Lockhart.
Time for that child
The events of her time out with Lockhart at the bar triggers Hannah’s first periods. This is what Volmer has been waiting for. Now he can have that child with Hannah to take his bloodline forward.
The Labs and Tanks
Lockhart’s tooth gets loose and he removes it right off. He’s going through the same things as Pembroke now. He wanders in the restricted zones and locates Mrs. Watkins who seems heavily drugged and frail. She tells him that the Baroness was pregnant on the day she was burnt. And that the fetus was cut and thrown into the aquifer and that the child survived. Mrs. Watkins also says “She doesn’t know”. She’s referring to Hannah here. He further walks around to see tanks with floating bodies. He sees Pembroke too. He assumes Pembroke is dead, but it turns out that he’s in suspended animation (it’s perhaps part of the Filtration process). Lockhart gets spotted and makes a run for it. Volmer intercepts him. Lockhart mentions his tooth and Volmer takes him in to examine. They strap Lockhart in and drill his tooth. Lockhart somehow attacks the dentist and makes a run for it. He enters a cab, it’s the same cab driver.
He goes back to town with him and goes to the cop. He tells the cop what he’s seen at the spa. But the cop is in on the whole thing and simply informs Volmer. Volmer comes to get Lockhart saying that he’s a patient and is mentally unstable. Volmer mentions that Lockhart is delusional and has threatened Pembroke. Remember that line “hit him over the head and drag him out by his hair”?. They use that against Lockhart. The cop then tells Lockhart that he was being investigated for fraud back in New York. Lockhart realizes that the cop is one of them. Pembroke shows up alive and says that Lockhart tried to take him back against his will. So Lockhart is confused how Pembroke is alive.
Lockhart is losing his mind
Lockhart, who has started losing his mind, begins to write a letter exactly like the one the firm received from Pembroke. But he suddenly is reminded of Hannah. He snaps out of it and cuts open his cast to realize his leg was never broken. He sneaks into the restricted quarters to see that the fully consumed dead and dried up bodies are being dumped into the waters. The eels in these waters eat up the bodies. He sees Mrs. Watkins’ body is one of them. He gets attacked by the caretaker but manages to kill him with a brick. Meanwhile, Hannah steps into another pool where eels show up. Initially, they get ready to attack her but then Hannah bleeds from her periods. The eels mysteriously swim in circles around her. There seems to be no real explanation to why the eels behave this way. Perhaps it has something to do with her as a fetus surviving in the eel filled aquifer. Unknown to her she has some control over the eels. Do drop in a comment if you have some theories around this.
Hannah freaks out and slaps Lockhart who is coming her way. They both end up at the dinner place where Lockhart confronts Volmer in front of the other patients. He tells everyone that Volmer is making them sick. Then something strange happens, the patients get up like zombies and attack Lockhart. Again, there is no reason why this happens. If anyone has a clue, please do drop in a comment.
Lockhart for the filter
Lockhart wakes up inside a Filtration unit. He notices Pembroke is in a similar setup next to him. Volmer appears and confesses the eels and the water’s properties. He also mentions how the only mistake the Baron made two centuries ago was to use unwilling subjects. And that times have changed and now he has rich people filled with emptiness who come on their own. After this Volmer pumps eels into Lockhart.
Volmer meets Hannah and explains how she’s “ready”. Hannah meets a zombified Lockhart (with teeth all fixed) who says “Why would anyone want to leave”. She gives him back his ballerina. Lockhart sees it and snaps out of it. Volmer gets married to Hannah in a secret ceremony held in the presence of the staff (who all seem to be descendants of the followers of the Baron).
A Cure For Wellness: Ending Explained
Lockhart finds an old picture and notices a man with bandages on his face walking with a little girl. The little girl is Hannah. Lockhart finally realizes that Volmer is actually the Baron. He realizes that Hannah is in trouble. Meanwhile, Volmer takes Hannah down to his lair and ties her up. He begins to rip her clothes off. Lockhart arrives for the rescue and sets Volmer on fire. The Baron is on fire again. But he takes control and beats up Lockhart. The fire spreads through the whole building. Volmer is just about to dump Lockhart into the pool of eels. Hanna puts a shovel through Volmer’s head and he falls into the eel pool and gets eaten. Hannah throws away her vial . The fires spread and destroy the entire spa.
Lockhart and Hanna make a run for it on her cycle. They crash into a car that has the board members from New York. Since they haven’t heard anything from Lockhart, they’ve all decided to come for themselves and find out what’s going on. They ask where Pembroke is and Lockhart says “He’s gone”. The board has also figured a backup plan to make Lockhart the fall guy just like his father. They ask him to get into their car and leave with them. He refuses and continues on cycling on with Hannah. The movie ends with an evil smile on Lockhart’s face.
That Smile At The End
My thoughts on the smile are this. No, it is not the Baron who has somehow transcended onto Lockhart. He is shown to have no such powers. Lockhart desires success unlike no one else his age. It has consumed him to the extent that he’s willing to throw Pembroke under the bus to escape the fudging he has done. He hungry for money and power. He’s not a saint to start off with. He’s quite the evil corporate businessman in the making. Then he’s made to go nuts by drinking eel water. He is now the only surviving heir to the knowledge of eternal life. Hannah is a child she doesn’t know the details. She hasn’t seen the Filtration process. Lockhart has with him the only survivor of the Baron’s bloodline who trusts him enough to kill her father to save him. Lockhart also knows that Hannah, as a fetus, survived in the aquifer. He understands that there is something special about Hannah. Putting all this together, Lockhart is riding away with a prized bride and the knowledge to eternal life. This puts a smile on that face!
Actually, that’s the best I’ve got, I’m not fully convinced either. The ending is just too plot-holey. What the Baron had was years of experiments, results, failures, and equipment built for the Filtration process. All of that is up in flames. Lockhart only knows that human bodies need to be used for the filtering but has no clue how it is done. In fact, many of the staff in the spa possibly know more than Lockhart. Perhaps, Lockhart has just lost his mind thanks to everything he’s been through. That ending was just a slap in the face for putting up with the film. If anyone has more theories on the ending, please drop in your comments.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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