I have always gotten a weird little thrill from watching rich people do insane things in order to feel just a little bit better. I’m not alone: When eccentric celebrities get vampire facials or swear by ice baths or pursue ascetic lives of pure deprivation for no reason other than excessive funds and a desire to feel again, we all watch on, laughing and tweeting as if we might not do the same. I never understood, however, how normal people who aren’t millionaires get duped by wellness con artists and drop their entire life’s savings on people with zero medical training — that is, until I watched Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers. All it takes, apparently, to want to do something ostensibly horrible in the pursuit of perfection is an enigmatic cult leader played by Nicole Kidman.
Centering on nine masochistic people who spend ten days at a restrictive yet glamorous wellness retreat, Nine Perfect Strangers is a messy, highly watchable exploration of secrets, lies, and the extent to which desperate people will go to find peace. The adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name stars Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans, and Samara Weaving who all end up at Tranquillum for a number of reasons: some are upset over winning the lottery, others are mourning, one is recovering from a catfish. But what they discover is that Tranquillum is not a peaceful escape from the world with lots of yoga and swimming; it’s an overly strict compound built around arbitrary rules and more than a little bit of psychological manipulation.
And yet, none of them ever leave or demand a refund for the life’s savings they’ve dropped for a peaceful vacation. There is nothing physically stopping them from leaving, no force when they try and get in their cars, which they don’t. You want to scream, “Enjoy yourself! You’re on vacation! If it’s so bad, just go home!” But they don’t, and you have to understand why: It’s Masha.
Masha is the six-foot tall ethereal retreat founder wrapped in white. Played by Nicole Kidman, she has the volatile, otherworldly yet graceful temperament of Cate Blanchett’s Lady Galadriel in Lord of the Rings. With a heavily affected Russian accent and a past as a formidable CEO, Masha is living out her new life at Tranquillum, a place that she thinks is her destiny. As we soon find out, launching the resort is supposed to be her second chance at life after getting shot under mysterious circumstances and briefly dying, and she wants to help other people to gain the sense of peace and meaning that she’s achieved. Or so she says — her “treatments” are experimental and extreme, pushing people to the limits of what they can handle and then some. (One involves making guests dig their own grave and then lying in it.) Yet she’s utterly hypnotic, quietly staring at guests with a weird little head tilt when they rail against her weird rules. She’s daring them to leave. They never do.
Of course, everything descends into chaos, with some horror movie–esque touches. It’s all a little weird and psychedelic and sometimes unnecessarily brutal, but it’s a ride worth sitting through. The vague term “wellness” and the desperate people who pursue it are ripe material for narrative distortion and extremity. The extents rich people will go to in order to just look or feel a little better often mimics torture in a way that we can’t stop watching. We eat up any word of Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Goop methods or laugh at Mark Wahlberg’s insane morning routine, so convinced are we that we wouldn’t do the same with millions of dollars at our disposal.
Nine Perfect Strangers isn’t the first attempt to depict the absurdity of wellness onscreen. Recent horror film A Cure For Wellness, the 2019 Paul Rudd vehicle Living With Yourself, and this summer’s other HBO highlight The White Lotus are just a few recent examples that play with this desire for self-betterment at any cost. At home, it’s often easy to wonder what these privileged people are moaning about, why they are so desperate. With Nine Perfect Strangers, however, the motivation for living like guinea pigs in a mad god’s experiment is perfectly clear: Masha. I, too, would be her puppet for a stab at feeling just a little better.
Nicole Kidman is an actress who always has a weird undercurrent of eccentricity bubbling beneath the surface, and Nine Perfect Strangers offers her the perfect opportunity to be just a little camp. She’s ageless and near-unreadable, constantly on the brink of smirking as her guests writhe and panic under her control. It’s impossible to tell her real intent but understandable that someone would stick around to find out. Kidman says she stayed in character for months while filming. Imagine being at dinner with her and she is still Masha, whispering in that impenetrable accent and convincing you to give up all your worldly comforts for a shot at greatness. Wouldn’t you do it, too?
Nine Perfect Strangers revisits the “wellness as cult” trope in pitch-perfect detail, playing on desires we all have but don’t necessarily have the resources to pursue. We laugh at celebrities who get their blood drained or give up their worldly possessions, but perhaps if I had millions of dollars to expend, I would do some pretty weird shit, too. But I don’t. Instead, I sit at home watching fictional rich people be forced to take LSD and go on weird hikes and confess all of their sins to one another, safe in the knowledge that I will never be rich enough to let an enigmatic elven cult leader take all of my worldly possessions and threaten my well-being. But I would. I really, really would.