Gore Verbinski is the man who revitalized the pirate genre with his rendition of the Disney ride in theatrical form. His latest effort would see him try his hand at the reinvigoration of classic gothic horror in the vein of Vincent Price and Joseph Green, but at what point does conspicuous homage become a broken crutch? Well if we’re citing A Cure For Wellness, the answer is about 45 minutes in. Verbinski’s attempts at entrancement through elegant and expansive visuals make for an interesting and quite beautiful picture that ultimately has very little to say.
The film opens with a distinctly familiar vibe, akin to Shutter Island. We meet our would be protagonist, Lockhart (Dane Dehaan), as he settles into his cookie cutter corner office after closing a big deal. He is met in the boardroom by a few circling prehistoric sharks who call him on his moral ambiguity in business and advise him that his only hope to save himself, is to go and retrieve the CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who has refused to return from an alpine sanitarium where he has apparently sought refuge from the corporate world in order to attain the cure for his sickness.
As Lockhart makes his way to the top of a hill at the foot of the Alps to the eerie mansion which houses the patients of this spa, a mansion which is obtusely revealed to have been rebuilt after a massive fire burned it to ash surrounding the controversial nuptials of the Baron who once resided there, and his sister-wife. The grounds are rife with elderly patients who prance around the yard playing croquet, badminton, and doing various other calisthenics. The scene is so abnormally tranquil, but Lockhart, who serves as the surrogate for the audience, ignores his ambivalence to the display and soldiers on with his task. Lockhart is met with resistance and veiled responses when he arrives, and his assertive and condescending tone doesn’t seem to pierce the peaceful civility of the sanitarium staff. He is turned away and asked to return later in the evening to speak with Pembroke, and on his way down the hill, is involved in a massive accident involving a poorly constructed CGI deer.
Lockhart awakens in a hospital bed, with a nurse placing an ungodly amount of towels in his dresser, and Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) patiently awaiting his consciousness, almost as if it were timed perfectly or he has been there for the entire three days he claims Lockhart’s been out for. Eventually becoming lucid, Lockhart cons his way into finding Pembroke in the bathhouse where he is met with strange apprehension, then complete clarity, out of thin air. Pembroke reluctantly agrees to go back to New York, and while Lockhart awaits him to gather his things, he comes across a reserved young woman, Hannah (Mia Goth). Hannah is vaguely described by the good doctor as a “very special case” and the good news is that it only takes something like two whole hours to figure out what the hell that even means.
And this is the problem with Gore Verbinski’s gothic epic. It’s just not epic enough to warrant a two and a half hour run time. The vast set up is just a self servient method by which Verbinski can strut his visionary prowess by providing a host of dazzling cinematic sequences that seemingly have no meritable bearing on the story. There are all of these puzzle pieces that allude to something largely nefarious, which is actually brilliant, but the climax comes at a great cost of time which sees the audience check out long before we get to the clumsy reveal. There are curative waters, which seem to not be curing anything. There are curious little blue vials that are referred to as “vitamins” that only the staff seems privy to carrying. There is the constant imagery of parasitic eel like creatures that seem to be Lamprey or oversized leeches. All on their own, these malevolent idols are enough to build interest into their potential connective tissue, but the film spends too much time meandering to hold captivation.
Verbinski seems to be creating a film with historical impetus and uniquely sac-religious connotations. Dehaan’s Lockhart even fits the bill as a sort of Nazi stereotype, as Dr. Volmer appears to be an iteration inspired by Jozef Goebels. If he had only found a way to cut this down to a more palatable run time, then the issues that sank this film would have dissipated entirely. There are whole scenes that seem to just be excuses to showcase the absolutely gorgeous set design by Eve Lawrence, whose aqua inspired motif is the real star of the show. The fact is, A Cure For Wellness has some of the most eye-catching and intricately unsettling imagery from a horror movie we have seen in quite some time, arguably making Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak look shoddy. But the astounding visual display can’t mask the narrative inefficiencies which suffer from clear emotional distance that prevent empathy from forming for any of these characters, save for Hannah.
This is an extremely ambitious effort, both technically and artistically, and Verbinski and his cast are stylistically brilliant, but substantively empty. Perhaps the biggest concern is that Dehaan’s Lockhart is neither likeable nor interesting, so his subsequent punishment at the hands of an unhinged physician doesn’t feel like punishment at all. The whole film is just a waiting game for cantankerous characters to get their comeuppance. The lack of a rooting interest keeps this at arm’s length, making it feel even longer than it is, but the silver lining comes in the form of majestic and macabre illustrations that will captivate when the story fails to. A Cure For Wellness seems to have too much lip service to classic genre inspired films, but the effort here is admirable. While it may not seem so, to make a big budget gothic horror, in today’s climate, is a risky endeavor, just not one that paid off–this time around.
2.85/5 Do Better Bro