Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness is a clean break away from more family-friendly ventures, boasting terrific cinematography and a stellar performance from Dane DeHaan, but is ultimately let down by its own disappointing finale.
“There’s something in the fucking water!” screams Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), the central protagonist in A Cure For Wellness, after his rescue from a locked steel water tank that also happened to be infested with eels. The expletive is far from badly-placed. The young, money-hungry executive is more than out of his depth. From the moment he appeared onscreen, Lockhart has had to deal with a plethora of nightmares beyond human imagination – so far, there have been carnivorous eels, eerie childlike singing, and worst of all, unhelpful customer service. And the movie is just getting started with him.
Cue the record scratch and the freeze frame – you’re probably wondering how he ended up in this situation. Well, that’s easy enough to explain… unlike the latter half of the movie. DeHaan’s ambitious young stockbroker is sent to a remote Swiss Alps sanatorium to retrieve company CEO Pembroke (Harry Groening), whose rambling, fire-and-brimstone style letter sent from the institution suggests that he has all but lost his mind. While returning to the city after a failed attempt at visiting Pembroke, an itinerant stag crossing the road causes an unfortunately timed car accident, and Lockhart wakes up in the sanatorium with a broken leg. Held against his will by the establishment’s founder Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), he is eventually coerced into receiving the institution’s signature (and barely-explained) “treatment”, to cure an equally poorly described illness that is vaguer than a bad horoscope reading. While roaming the grounds, Lockhart’s chance meeting with the mysterious Hannah (Mia Goth), a naïve and mentally-underdeveloped patient, triggers a sequence of events that leads Lockhart to solve several pressing questions. Who is Dr. Volmer, really? What is “the cure”? What is it even meant to cure? Why are corpses being wheeled to a stupidly conspicuous “secret” door in the ruins of an old church every night? And just what on earth is in the water?!
A Cure For Wellness is nothing else if not the filmic manifestation of Verbinski’s adamant refusal to return to 12A-rated films.
By creating this slimy squirm-fest of a movie, I daresay he’s made his point
Some of these questions are answered comprehensibly. Others just create more plot holes than were initially present. Admittedly, A Cure For Wellness gets off to a very intriguing start – the idyllic exterior of the sanatorium and the saccharine sweet mannerisms with which its patients conduct themselves really reek of something bigger and more sinister lurking on the inside. It also remains strongly compelling for most of its whopping two-and-a-half-hour runtime, thanks to the arsenal of mysteries that the writers Justin Haythe and Gore Verbinski – of whom the latter also directs – painstakingly stockpile for the first three quarters of the film. But, disappointingly enough, all these enigmas do not culminate in the glorious Chekhovian resolution they deserve. Instead, the final quarter of the movie ends up shooting itself in the foot in the most blown-out, disgustingly operatic fashion it can. The “cure” itself is also explained, but the big reveal only highlights further inconsistencies in the ways it is used as a plot-driving device throughout the film. For a movie that started off on such firm footing, the ending seemed like an unfortunate own goal; shoddily written and completely lacking in finesse or plausibility.
luring them in with tantalising riddles or repelling them by throwing every phobia known to mankind
However, the piecemeal way in which A Cure For Wellness assembles itself sometimes works to its advantage. Audiences may remember director Gore Verbinski as the man behind the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies (yes, the ones that came before the franchise went down the toilet). However, A Cure For Wellness is nothing else if not the filmic manifestation of Verbinski’s adamant refusal to return to 12A-rated films. By creating this slimy squirm-fest of a movie, I daresay he’s made his point. The movie undeniably succeeds at unsettling its viewers – though some might argue that it may do so to the point where audiences would have no qualms about walking out. Despite the botched finale, Verbinski and Haythe keep viewers on tenterhooks; alternately luring them in with tantalising riddles or repelling them by throwing every phobia known to mankind at the very unfortunate Lockhart, one way or another. This is no exaggeration. Whether it’s eels, dentists, interminable mazes of room after identical room, the off-kilter fake smiles of hospital attendants, or (I kid you not) coagulating urine – this movie has it all, and it means a lose-lose situation for Lockhart. If his attempts at playing sleuth are successful, the truths he reveals about the sanatorium are so terrible they give new meaning to the phrase “ignorance is bliss”. If he is caught, he is (unsurprisingly) subjected to inane, toe-curling tortures that had viewers at the screening I attended holding their hands over their eyes in horror. For this, lead actor Dane DeHaan’s brilliantly tortured performance as Lockhart is to be thanked. While his character is initially nothing more than a cynical, snarky, American bully archetype, Lockhart’s slow descent into suspicion and madness is so convincing that it eventually becomes impossible not to sympathise with him. DeHaan embodies intense duress so realistically that some scenes of the movie are almost unwatchable, not because of the actual procedures themselves, but because of DeHaan’s own reactions.
it would be very difficult indeed to pick out a scene that is not as immaculately crafted as a work of art
A Cure For Wellness is also a very obvious pastiche of notable aspects from different movies and directors. But, lack of originality aside, this should not immediately disqualify it as entirely unwatchable. In fact, these obvious influences make the movie as visually fascinating as it is. Verbinski clearly drew inspiration from flamboyantly Gothic works such as Crimson Peak, and even The Phantom of the Opera, from which the movie’s final scenes could have been ripped entirely. But A Cure For Wellness is especially reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island – and in fact, mimics the latter’s opening sequence in an almost identical series of shots as Lockhart arrives at the sanatorium. While A Cure For Wellness lacks Shutter Island’s unique plot twists, it doesn’t exactly do a bad job of creating the same eerie, surreal, conspiracy-ridden atmosphere that garnered Shutter Island universal critical acclaim. In fact, stylistically speaking, A Cure For Wellness easily surpasses any of its influences’ ocular aesthetics. Verbinski’s set designers handle the sanatorium with all the visual aplomb and pastel colour palettes of Wes Anderson; but with a twisted, malevolent edge to boot. Director of photography Bojan Bazelli also deserves an honourable mention – it would be very difficult indeed to pick out a scene that is not as immaculately crafted as a work of art. It is the film’s smorgasbord of visually stunning design and cinematography that is its strongest feature – but in the end, exterior beauty and a lone standout performance does not prevent the plot from resolving itself through complete insanity. And, unfortunately for Verbinski, neither does it prove to be the miracle cure for mediocrity.
3.5 / 5
Image: Twentieth Century Fox 2017