A Cure For Wellness | Gore Verbinski | February 17, 2017
To call the career of director Gore Verbinski interesting is putting it lightly. This is the same director behind the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean films, The Ring, The Weather Man, Rango, and uh, The Lone Ranger (sorry to remind you). Yet it’s Verbinski’s latest romp, the severely whacked-out A Cure For Wellness, that may be his most fascinating (and polarizing) work to date.
Let’s get this out of the way: A Cure For Wellness is not for everyone. There are many vile, repulsive moments lingering beneath its depths, some that will turn off viewers long before it finally reaches its rather unnecessary runtime of 146 minutes. But the fact that this is a studio film, made by a big name director, is somewhat of a feat of its own. It’s just a shame it doesn’t quite stick the landing of the rather interesting mystery that it initially teases us with.
Based on a script written by Justin Haythe, A Cure For Wellness follows the journey of Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a hardworking young man who works at a sleazy Wall Street company whose board sends him to the Swiss Alps. Lockhart’s task is to retrieve their CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from a mysterious wellness center after the shareholders receive an odd letter from him. This is a problem for the cutthroat shareholders, as an upcoming merger relies on the CEO’s swift return.
Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli film the scenes in New York with a depressing haze that remind of early 2000s works like Fight Club. So when we are taken to the gorgeous scenery that the Swiss Alps provide, it seems to Lockhart that this will be an easy breezy, maybe even a delightful grab and go mission that will land him a cushy seat high amongst the ranks of his company. That is, if he was ever to return home.
Of course, the center isn’t quite as it seems, and Pembroke isn’t so easily swayed to go back to the lifestyle that he left behind. Upon his arrival, Lockhart is told by his personal chauffeur that no one ever leaves the institute. As if that wasn’t enough of a red flag, he’s greeted in eerie fashion by all the staff at the queasy establishment; no matter how shiny and pristine that the beautiful building looks, something is seriously awry.
Lockhart is finally spooked enough where he tries to escape by car, but a deer just happens to quite literally run into it, causing a major accident that leaves him with a broken leg. Soon he’s stuck under the watchful eye of the facility’s director Dr. Heinreich Volmer (a deliciously creepy Jason Isaacs) and it becomes clear to both us and Lockhart that his excursion has become more of an extended stay.
Things get interesting when he meets Hannah (Mia Goth), one of the only young patients at the facility along with Lockhart. She’s strangely spent her entire life at the facility, raised with a watchful eye by Dr. Volmer. As Lockhart dives deeper, he unlocks a world of history and mystery about the facility, to the point of no return. There’s something up with the drinking water, the doctors condone some rather unorthodox experiments, and there are eels. Lots of eels.
Haythe’s script (based upon an idea that he and Verbinski came up with) is strange and fascinating for a good chunk of the first hour or so. The facility and its inhabitants are filled to the brim with odd details and behaviors, to the point where you can’t help but be fascinated about how it will all play out. There’s some gross-out body horror- the sort of scenes that will make you want to look away – but at the same time you can’t help but keep your gaze. It’s tense and has a lingering creepiness to it (thanks to the score of Benjamin Wallfisch) that doesn’t rely on overplayed jump scares, but rather a slow elegant psych-thrill ride that recalls films like, most recently, Shutter Island.
But at 146 minutes, it takes its time to leisurely drag out, and if you’re going to do that, you have got to have one hell of a pay-off. Although Verbinski indulges in an absolute bonkers Gothic finale, I can’t quite say that the ending pays off or connects all its loose ends (there are a few). The film reaches a point of bat shit crazy that a part of you wants to go with it, just because of the sheer ambition of it all. However, it veers off into a territory that feels like a completely different movie entirely.
A Cure For Wellness isn’t perfect, and I’m sure a lot of people will be utterly turned off by everything it has to offer (there’s one “dentist” scene that instantly made two people immediately book it at my screening). But it is beautifully shot and features some drop-dead gorgeous production design. I don’t approve of a lot of the film’s choices, and there’s a lot that turned me off. But at the same time, I admire that fact that it boldly takes some risks, and for a mainstream production of this size, it’s a pleasant and welcome surprise. That fact that a film with this much imagination and risk-taking exists is a miracle.