A film review by Craig J. Koban June 17, 2017

A CURE FOR WELLNESS jj
 

2017, R, 146 mins.

 

Dane DeHaan as Mr. Lockhart  /  Jason Isaacs as Volmer  /  Mia Goth as Hannah  /  Carl Lumbly as Mr. Wilson  /  Lisa Banes as Hollis  /  Ivo Nandi as Enrico

Directed by Gore Verbinski  /  Written by Justin Haythe

Gore Verbinski's A CURE FOR WELLNESS is one of those head scratching films that leaves you with overwhelming feelings that it should have been infinitely better than the final product.   

The film marks a return to the psychological horror genre that the filmmaker once tackled early on in his career with THE RING, not to mention that, visually at least, it's as breathtakingly shot and endlessly sumptuous to look at as anything he's made.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS also benefits from an intriguing and potentially ambitious premise early on that genuinely enthralled me.  Alas, what started with such an abundance of creative promise is a work that stumbles and lumbers around a self indulgently bloated running time of two and a half hours, and by the halfway mark the whole enterprise begins to lose momentum.  That's a shame, because there's a great film lurking deep beneath A CURE FOR WELLNESS that's desperately trying to see the light of day. 

The modest budgeted $40 million American-German thriller establishes itself very early on as a penetratingly atmospheric work right from the get go.  Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike Dane DeHaan stars as Lockhart, a young up and comer at a prestigious New York based financial company that's trying to rise the corporate ladder as fast as he can.  He's given an opportunity by his higher ups to ascend when they give him a highly unusually assignment: He's to travel to the Swiss Alps to a secret and isolated spa to locate and return his company's CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), who journeyed to the establishment, but never returned home from it.  His firm desperately needs Pembroke back to complete a much needed and highly lucrative merger for the company.  Initially, Lockhart seems reluctant, but then when his employers reveal that they have dirt on him that could easily get him in trouble with the law, he easily acquiesces to their demands and makes the journey. 

 

 

When Lockhart arrives at the spa it seems like a heavenly oasis in the mountains surrounded by ample natural beauty.  At reception he's greeted with some roadblocks in terms of being given access to his CEO, but after some belligerent negotiating he's granted a meet-and-greet with the spa's head honcho, Doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who reveals to him that the spa specializes in unique water treatments for its clients to stave off aging and disease and give them a new lease on life.  Lockhart is finally granted access to Pembroke, but he's a bit startled to discover that he has no desire whatsoever to leave and return to his company, at least until he is "cured."   Tired and more than a little frustrated, Lockhart leaves the spa to return back to a nearby village, but his car careens off the round after a horrific collision with a runaway deer.  When he awakens several days later he finds himself back at the spa - admitted as a patient - with a broken leg.  Doctor Volmer assures Lockhart that he will be well looked after while recovering, but the longer Lockhart stays in the facility the more sinister things he notices about the doctor's therapeutic methods with his clientele. 

As previously indicated, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is replete with exquisitely crafted imagery.  Verbinski is certainly no stranger to helming multiple films with meticulously envisioned and executed aesthetics (see the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films and the terribly underrated animated film RANGO), and A CURE FOR WELLNESS all but reinforces the director as a supreme cinematic visualist.  The striking attention to detail in the frame is astounding at times, not to mention Bonjan Bozelli's ominously stunning cinematography, which often paints the screen with a sheen of blackness when he's not evoking Eva Stewart's bravura production design of the spa itself.  The getaway serves as a chief secondary character in the film, and the manner that Verbinski and company envision a wholly audacious sense of style and ambience is one of A CURE FOR WELLNESS' largest strengths.  On a level of transfixing imagery, this is one of the most handsomely shot films in many a moon that deserves big screen viewing. 

The opening 60 or so minutes of the film are its most undeniably gripping, as Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and THE LONE RANGER) invites viewers in to take the strange and beguiling journey that its main character partakes in.  This is not a jump-scare centric horror film in the more ostentatious fashion, but instead is a much more effectively dialed down slow burn affair that takes its time on establishing its characters and narrative particulars well before unleashing scenes of cringing and unnerving torment.  But make no mistake about it, poor Lockhart does indeed find himself placed within nightmarish scenarios the deeper he pulls the mysterious veil off of the spa.  One moment that will make many viewers look away in horror involves a very impromptu bit of spa dental care that's positively stomach churning, as well as a later scene where he's forced against his will to be submerged in a water filled isolation tank filled with snake-like creatures.  Those with intense phobias to all things slithery would be best served skipping this movie.   

Verbinski is going for, I think, something approximating cerebral horror akin to THE SHINNING and SHUTTER ISLAND, with the latter Martin Scorsese film serving as a conduit to many unmistakable similarities in terms of tone and plot.  As a film that fosters and maintains an undulating sensation of eerie dread that never settles in to reveal too much of the secrets of the spa early on, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is on resoundingly assured ground.  Yet, over-scaled bloat really, really starts to taint this film around the 90-minute mark to the point of zapping all intrigue and momentum from the proceedings.  Perhaps the stark simplicity of the film's core premise gives way to a screenplay that frankly becomes too overstuffed for its own good with subplots, narrative detours, and some harsh tonal imbalances later on that are positively jarring.  This is especially pertinent as the film awkwardly stumbles towards a climax that's as ridiculously laughable as it is excessively revolting, during which time face peeling monsters, subterranean chases, white robed cultists, and even incest are confusingly thrown in to bring the film to a chaotic and trashy conclusion that subverts everything Verbinski did well leading into it.  How a film like A CURE FOR WELLNESS begins with such subtle and effectively modulated nuance and then collapses into B-grade horror sensationalism is positively stupefying. 

This film is also quite thanklessly acted, which makes its latter transgressions all the more exasperating.   Dane DeHaan has a tricky role playing a fairly dislikeable creep and somehow make us root for him as his character journeys down the spa's dark and hellish rabbit hole.  Mia Goth is also quite memorable as the spa's youngest resident that has a very unique relationship to Doctor Volmer; she has an ethereal strangeness that serves the film well.  Unfortunately, A CURE FOR WELLNESS never fully emerges as a lingering psychological horror thriller of immense power, mostly because it's overly long to the point of inviting frequent watch checking and careens towards a silly third act that felt like it was excised from a whole different film altogether.  Verbinski is most definitely in his creative wheelhouse here in forging a potent looking and hallucinatory haunted house movie with an evocative dreamlike aura.   Regrettably, his technically masterful efforts are stymied by sluggish scripting and a woeful lack of editorial discipline.   As far as good looking messes go, this one is right up there. 

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