While director Gore Verbinski has true gifts for immersive production design (as he did in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films) and just generally creeping us out (The Ring), his latest effort attempts to do both but sacrifices story and interesting characters in the process. There’s no denying that A Cure for Wellness is a visual feast—from the Swiss Alps chalet look of a wellness center where no one actually seems to be getting better, to rooms within the catacombs of the center that are grimy, claustrophobic, and full of terrible secrets. In addition, the creep factor is high, with sensory deprivation tanks filled with eels as the centerpiece of some patients’ treatment.
But what Verbinski gives us is a classic example of style over substance at an epic length (damn near 2.5 hours) and lots of clear moments where editing would have been wise. The film opens with a corporate stooge named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) being sent by his superiors to the center to locate the company’s CEO, who went there to recover after a nervous breakdown and never returned. Lockhart needs to get him to sign over his shares of the company so it can move forward on a big deal, and Lockhart’s only job is to get that signature. But as soon as he arrives, it’s clear from the clientele and the staff (led by Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer) that the facility is run more like a cult than a medical establishment, with patients all seeming to benefit from something called “The Cure,” which seems tied to a strange liquid doled out in small doses from dark blue bottles described as vitamins.
Lockhart eventually finds the CEO (Harry Groener) but upon doing so, he feels like leaving the center is no longer an option. When he attempts to leave, he is in a terrible car crash before he even gets off the mountain. When he awakens, he finds himself back in the center in a leg cast, forced to move around on crutches with little chance of getting out soon. Not surprisingly, the doctors believe that the mystery illness that seems to have infected all of their patients is now in Lockhart’s system and that their “cure” is just what he needs. It’s easy to get a sense that “the cure” is some sort of mass experiment in which all of the patients are participants whether they know it or not. But the film gets so lost in keeping things a secret for as long as possible that after a certain point, it easy to stop caring or keeping track of who’s doing what to whom.
The current state of affairs at the wellness center is tied to terrible events a hundred years earlier (aren’t they always?); there’s a strange young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth) skulking around the grounds, who is both full of information and strangely clueless; and there’s a long history of the working-class townspeople at the base of the mountain not getting along with those on high (I feel like there’s a metaphor at play here). In other words, there are a great many elements of a successful thriller—maybe a few too many—but none of them truly gel in any substantive way or amount to much by the end.
I’m fairly certain that Verbinski and his team are attempting to slide his audience into the mind of Lockhart, losing all sense of time passing or understanding what is real and what is hallucination. And the impact of this style of filmmaking certain adds to layer of appropriate anxiety to the entire experience of watching A Cure for Wellness. In a strange twist of fate, the director’s ability to create just vivid and haunting visuals only makes his actual story reveals suffer more. And by the time we get to the heart of what is truly going on at the facility, it feels like a cheap letdown that relies on little more than a little extra gore and a weirdly out-of-place attempted sexual assault that goes on far too long and couldn’t be less necessary to the plot. The moment so completely cheapens what the film had going for it that it utterly lost me from that point forward.
From an original screenplay by Justin Haythe (Snitch, Revolutionary Road), A Cure for Wellness has enough working in its favor that I can see lovers of a more atmospheric brand of horror liking what they see. And while I can certainly appreciate a more cerebral brand of scare film as well, something about this work keeps it from being a satisfying pursuit, landing with a spectacular thud.