I would like to propose something. Many will argue how A Cure for Wellness has few tricks up its sleeves that audiences have not seen before. What if director Gore Verbinski knows that as well? Fitting in the same league as gorgeously designed, but narratively challenged films such as Shutter Island and Crimson Peak, A Cure for Wellness plays like a film where the destination is perhaps clear, but the journey is so cinematically interesting. Like those other films, it may be overlong and overstuffed, but the fact that a major studio funded such an odd project feels like a triumph for film in general. It doesn’t hurt to note just how disturbing some of the visuals are, which does play well to the genre fans looking for strange jolts.
To its credit, the film’s set up involves a great location in the form of a wellness center. Using an old German castle as the main setting, the idea of an evil wellness center is the sort of reversal that plays well into the film’s critique of modern society. Given the darkness of this film, the layer of satire is obviously played fairly broad, but this compliments the atmosphere and the craziness around it. Keeping this in mind, it should almost go without saying that the film’s lead character can only be sympathetic to a point.
Dane DeHaan stars as Lockhart, an ambitious employee matching the heavy bags under his eyes with the youthful features of a 90s DiCaprio in big boy clothes. The casting couldn’t be more deliberate, as we watch a young man who seems detached from his own reality already (despite his aspirations) and watch as he travels down a rabbit hole of illness, secrets and the macabre. Lockhart is tasked with retrieving his company’s CEO from an idyllic wellness center in the Swiss Alps, but you already know this task will be an impossible challenge. There is far too much mystery and peril in store for Lockhart, who must contend with Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and the staff at this facility, who hardly feel the need to let one of their guests leave.
While the screenplay was crafted by Justin Haythe, Verbinski shares a story by credit and the whole film does have the sort of visual edge that I would expect from him. Verbinski has had an interesting career as a journeyman director in Hollywood. By the time he got started (1997’s MouseHunt), similar original filmmakers like Tim Burton were in short supply. Verbinski would go on to helm The Ring, which was a solid horror success and then made it really big with the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. Having also mixed in The Weather Man and the Oscar-winning Rango (along with The Lone Ranger), Verbinski, for better or worse, certainly crafted an identity. It’s why I was so excited to see something like this from him.
A Cure for Wellness suffers from the exact same issues as his other big blockbusters in terms of bloated runtimes, yet the personal allow for far more credit to the auteur running this ship. The film is 146-minutes long (with credits) and likely cost a good deal of money, but 20th Century Fox still allowed something like this to get made. Of course, just because this film exists doesn’t mean it automatically gets a pass. What further benefits this film is the devotion it has to being weird and how carefully designed it all is. It is only the fact that focus is placed less on what the mystery is versus how it is presented that will be bothersome to many.
Early on, for example, Lockhart is presented with a glass of water at this wellness center. Given the music cue by Benajamin Wallfisch and the very deliberate camera angle by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, one obviously knows not to trust the water. The film is full of these instances and, yes, the actual reveals do come much later in the game. No doubt, this means having to play along with the film and it is a bit of a shame the script doesn’t allow Lockhart to be at least one step ahead, while most in the audience is likely two or more steps. Still, this film oozes with a level of style that hints at 60s/70s European and gothic cinema.
With such assured confidence in seeing this location used for maximum effect, it means trying to separate one’s self from adhering to plot focus in favor of taking in all the other grandiose elements. Even as the film proceeds down a fairly linear path, most likely chosen to appease the studio with something that at least makes some traditional sense, there is plenty of eccentricity in store for the audience. That eccentricity tends to come in the form of body horror, unpleasant sites and oh so many eels. One horrific scene calls to mind The Marathon Man. Another feels like a perverse version of The Phantom of the Opera. The film does little to make up for some dated ideas involving its antagonist, but the finale’s reverse Oedipal scenario also allows for magnificent, fiery destruction to take down the morbid tapestry that makes up this film.
Given the film’s penchant for montage, a good chunk of the film’s middle could have been tightened up. There’s even a curious epilogue that feels like a last-minute change. Committed work from DeHaan, the ever-so-slimy Isaacs and Mia Goth serve the film well, however, the true star is Verbinski. The director has brought the tools that served him well when coming up with the most imaginative ideas for a theme park ride-turned-blockbuster franchise and transferred them over to a psychological horror film that matches a seemingly sterile environment with ghastly ideas for how to improve the human condition. A Cure for Wellness may not have too many original twists and turns, but it can certainly make one twist and turn in their seat, let alone admire what horrifically detailed visuals have been put in front of them.