Gore Verbinski’s gothic creeper A Cure for Wellness takes its sweet time getting anywhere. But hot damn, when it does, it goes full-on, bugnuts, Wicker Man crazy. In fact, Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror mystery is a good point of comparison for A Cure for Wellness on many fronts—story wise, tonally, and the willingness to straight-up go bananas when the time comes.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is an ambitious young executive on the rise at a generic “business” in New York—he spouts off about numbers, works on spreadsheets, and does all of those nebulous things that movie businessmen do. We learn right away that he’s also a dick, because he has his assistant buy his elderly, nursing-home-bound mother a birthday gift—what an asshole. Lockhart’s also not above massaging the numbers and engaging in less-than-ethical practices to get the job done. As penance, the higher-ups send him to retrieve the company’s CEO from a seemingly idyllic, but mysterious “wellness center” spa type of thing in the Swiss Alps.
A Cure for Wellness has a standard set up. A character goes into a situation blind to perform what should be a simple, straightforward task. Things are, of course, not what they appear to be on the surface. The deeper he digs, the more mysteries he finds, the more sinister things become, and the more his mind unravels and his sanity is put to the test. Is something nefarious really going on, is he going crazy, is he being gas-lit—these questions drive what is in reality a thin narrative.
Gore Verbinski is not a filmmaker known for his brevity. Clocking in at 146 minutes—I was sure that was a typo, but it most certainly is not—length is the biggest knock against A Cure for Wellness. (Though it’s still shorter than The Lone Ranger.) It doesn’t necessarily plod or drag, it simply goes on too long. A handful of momentary asides, a few unnecessary thematic repetitions, and scenes that could use a trim—things could easily be streamlined tightened and still deliver the same effect, with the added benefit of being way shorter. There’s simply not enough narrative meat to fill two-and-a-half hours.
A Cure for Wellness has steady pieces in place. Full of quiet, ominous talking and loaded, equally ominous dialogue, the mood and tone fall into a gothic, pseudo-Hammer realm. There’s the portentous head of the center, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs); the esoteric, waif-like Hannah (Mia Goth), a girl trapped in a woman’s body; and elderly guests who frequently opine, “Why would anyone want to leave?” The isolated spa itself has a long, twisted, violent past.
The physical make-up of the film enhances the atmosphere of ambiguity and dread. Working with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, Verbinski’s composition, shot construction, and camera moves mesh with striking, often startling imagery to build a weird, unsettling vibe. Though admittedly, it’s never truly as strange as it aims to be.
Water plays an important role, mechanically and thematically, and Verbinski has fun playing with it in various forms, exploring how to use liquid in the frame. Nestled in the alpine foothills—a Kubrickian helicopter shot early on clearly evokes The Shining— though the story takes place in modern times, the design, the medical equipment, the setting, and even the costumes evoke an earlier era. Underground caverns conjure Edgar Allen Poe and operating rooms intone Frankenstein’s lab. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score flows from synth-y and giallo-esque to eerie child singing to repeating classical themes to Eurotrash techno-metal.
Despite an intriguing enough set up, a discomfiting feel, moments of visceral horror, and other promising elements, A Cure for Wellness doesn’t always add up to much. Pieces are there, but they don’t quite cohere like they need to in order to succeed. Lockhart’s underlying motivation gets lightly passed off as the result of childhood trauma. The history of the spa keeps changing—each reveal intends to shock and astonish, but each holds little surprise. The central mystery is so vague and mysterious at times it’s practically nonexistent. And narrative leaps are best undertaken without too close an examination.
And like I said, A Cure for Wellness takes far too long to get where it’s going. When it does, it’s great—the payoff of the final 15 minutes lets loose in bonkers ways I legitimately did not expect. But it would have had much more impact had we not been compelled to wait so damn long.
There’s a great deal to admire about A Cure for Wellness aesthetically. It’s an impeccably constructed film, one that tries something different, and it will especially appeal to fans of movies like The Wicker Man and Hammer horror from the 1970s era. While the overall package has flaws, it’s still a worthy genre weirdo wrapped in peculiar, often fascinating trappings, even if it’s ultimately an empty vessel. [Grade: B]