D: Gore Verbinski / 146m
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Tomas Norström, Ashok Mandanna, Magnus Krepper, Peter Benedict
An early contender for Most Disappointing Movie of the Year, A Cure for Wellness held so much promise that it was perhaps inevitable that it wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny. The return to live action moviemaking of Gore Verbinski after the less-than-stellar The Lone Ranger (2013), the movie looked like it could be many different things all at once, and while that’s not usually a good sign, Verbinski’s skill as a director meant that the movie had a better than average chance of being a success. And with no other feature in 2017 looking as if it could match the movie’s style and sense of mysterious intrigue, it seemed equally inevitable that, whatever reaction it received, it was destined for cult status.
While it’s a little early to be certain if A Cure for Wellness will achieve cult status, right now one thing that can be said is that if you make it all the way through to the end, then your own status as a tenacious, determined individual is assured. Put simply, the movie has a similar effect that a stay at the mysterious wellness centre has on its patients: it slowly drains the life out of anyone watching it, and they end up a dried out husk (it’s one of the movie’s more clumsy revelations: that patients at the spa are dying from dehydration). Verbinski has attempted to make a gothic mystery, but in doing so, has forgotten that if you’re going to put people in mortal jeopardy, then the mortal jeopardy has got to be very frightening indeed, and the nature of the mystery has got to be fully explained and not rendered unintelligible thanks to its being unintelligible in the first place.
The mystery itself is quite a simple one: what’s going on at a secluded spa in the Swiss Alps? But on the back of this, Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe have fashioned a tepid melodrama that twists and turns in an effort to be intriguing, but which unfortunately, is more likely to leave viewers irretrievably puzzled instead of satisfied. As the viewer slowly learns the deep, dark, terrible history of the area, and how its legacy is still being felt two hundred years later, the movie hints at even darker, more disturbing things going on behind the spa’s public façade. And to help the viewer unravel the mystery, we have DeHaan’s venal financial consultant, a man we know almost from the start to be duplicitous and corrupt. He’s our anti-hero, unsympathetic for the most part, and someone we wouldn’t want to identify with in a million years. It seems, though, that DeHaan knows this, and he doesn’t try to make the character likeable, or misunderstood, or deserving of anything other than our immediate mistrust. But that’s at the beginning; sadly though, very little of that changes as the movie wearyingly moves on.
In making DeHaan’s character, Lockhart, so unappealing, the movie lacks a central figure for the audience to care about (even when he’s strapped into a dentist’s chair with a drill about to do something horrible to him; the audience won’t be cringing because he’s the one in the chair, but because they’re imagining themselves in the chair). Lockhart is the intended fall guy, the patsy, and for long periods – and this is a movie that delights in long periods – his fate seems assured. Sent to retrieve his firm’s AWOL CEO, Pembroke (Groener), Lockhart encounters obstacle after obstacle until he’s reassured he can see his boss later that day. But a car crash leaves him with a broken leg and no immediate way of leaving the spa. And when he finally sees Pembroke, the man is initially reluctant to leave, though he does eventually agree he should return (there’s some nonsense about an imminent business merger and financial irregularities to be pinned on the CEO, but it’s all irrelevant to the main plot and serves merely as a contrived way of getting Lockhart to Switzerland).
The best laid plans rule comes into play at this point, and Pembroke is supposed to have suffered a relapse and retracted his decision. Lockhart becomes intrigued by the spa’s history – aided by a conveniently interested and knowledgeable patient, Victoria Watkins (Imrie) – and begins to piece together its tortuous past. He also becomes intrigued by the presence of Hannah (Goth), the youngest patient there by at least thirty years, and in the words of the spa’s director, Dr Volmer (Isaacs), “a special case”. Lockhart begins to suspect that Volmer is conducting clandestine experiments on the so-called patients, and that the water everyone drinks is contributing to the ill health that they’re all experiencing. As he begins to piece together the truth of what is happening, and Hannah’s role in it all, he makes another, more startling discovery, and soon finds his own life is in serious jeopardy.
There’s a lot more to the movie than the previous two paragraphs can cover, and that’s part of the problem; it tries to be so many different things, and never settles on one thing for good. As the plot unfolds, stranger and stranger things occur and are witnessed, but not with any sense that said stranger things might be meaningful, or dangerous necessarily to Lockhart’s health. There’s a scene late on where Lockhart is trapped (barring his head) in what looks like a reconstituted iron lung. He’s roughly intubated and live eels flow down into his body. If this was a normal, reality-based incident, Lockhart would die from the experience; in the aftermath however, Verbinski has DeHaan play him like he’s experiencing time dilation, or has taken one too many downers. And then, just as suddenly, he’s over it, because the movie needs a rousing climax – not that it gets it; it gets perverse body horror instead – rather than its anti-hero staring into space until he dies.
A Cure for Wellness is a movie that its creators have made inaccessible and obscure in terms of its narrative, and the tangled history of the spa and what happened on its site two hundred years before. Some viewers will manage to work out what’s going on and why, but it won’t make any difference if they’re right or wrong. Verbinski and Haythe are less concerned with making it all appear real than they are in trying to instill a palpable sense of dread into the material. But with too many scenes outstaying their welcome, or failing to advance the plot in any way, what the viewer is left with is a movie that often looks stunning – Eve Stewart’s production design deserves every superlative you can think of – but which doesn’t know when to shut up shop and say “that’s enough already”. By the time it reaches its faux-Hammer finale, the movie has lost any intensity it may have had, and Verbinski’s handling of the last ten to fifteen minutes lacks the necessary impact to make it work properly. It’s less “Oh my God!” and more “Oh my, is that the time?”
On the performance side, DeHaan enters into the spirit of things with obvious commitment (and no small amount of personal discomfort in some scenes), but even though he brings a great deal of sincerity to his role, it doesn’t help the viewer connect with Lockhart in any meaningful way, and when he does suffer at the hands of Volmer or others, there’s no emotional investment there on the viewer’s part. As the probably devious Volmer, Isaacs is a calmer presence than DeHaan, his urbane manner contrasting with DeHaan’s more aggressive portrayal, but all that is thrown away by the demands of the finale’s Gothic excesses. And as the ethereal Hannah, Goth gets to act all mysterious and coy in a performance that matches the part, but which isn’t allowed to develop beyond Hannah’s being a very curious damsel in distress. All three make the movie more palatable thanks to their involvement, but ultimately all three are just pawns moved about in awkward ways by Verbinski’s unconvincing approach to the material.
Rating: 5/10 – bloated and stagnant for long stretches, A Cure for Wellness looks impressive from the outside, but is fatally hollow on the inside; part psychological drama, part horror, it’s a movie whose storyline never really gels or feels organic, and which relies too heavily on its visuals to be anywhere near as effective as the thriller it’s meant to be.