Visionary filmmaker Gore Verbinski returns to the craft of psychological horror for his macabre conspiracy piece, A Cure For Wellness. Claustrophobically enclosed in an ethereal sanitation resort atop the Swiss Alps, audiences will settle in for a two hour and thirty minute visit, which much like the spa’s many patients, feels like a lifetime. Because the film itself as is plagued with ills as those who dwell in its steam rooms, and stroke in its pools, and the only cure available is stone-cold acceptance. That isn’t to say the film is devoid of merit, but it’s a mountains-climb away from reaching the peak of its potential.
Dane DeHaan’s brash and ambitious Wall Street executive Lockhart is sent to an idyllic but mysterious “wellness centre” in Switzerland on behalf of his firm. The plan is simple: locate the company’s CEO, who is currently residing at the establishment, and return him to New York in order for a corporate merger to be initiated. However, upon his arrival, Lockhart is involved in a car crash which leaves his leg broken, and he quickly becomes one of plentiful patients under the care of Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs); a peculiar practitioner who believes in purification treatments; regular intakes of water, vitamin droplets, and the like. Quickly Lockhart’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he starts to realise that all isn’t what it seems within this aquatic haven, in addition to striking an potent interest in young Hannah (Mia Goth); a “special case” at the centre, as she and Volmer frequently state.
Let’s start with the good: aesthetically, A Cure For Wellness is extremely accomplished. Verbinski’s lens pays ode to Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick throughout, amounting cinematography and imagery with the hallucinatory prowess of The Shining, or more recently Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. The clinical, alcohol-wiped sets are chilling, and the usage of smeary green lighting gives scenes a murky and insidious quality. Better than the sights are the sounds, particularly the rhythmic creaks and creeps of Lockhart’s crutches upon the steamy tiled floors. They become an audible pattern for amounting tension, which is implemented intelligently for the most part. As water is such a pivotal player in Verbinski’s world – seriously, the amount of rushing fluid, dripping taps, bubbling tanks and everything in between will have you crossing your legs tighter than a vice throughout – he exercises its capabilities to the maximum. After a while, it gets a little tedious, but the vision is admirable.
Problems however, are swimming through the picture’s veins, and they clog up any chance of A Cure For Wellness‘ success. Firstly, the pacing is nightmarish. Whilst Verbinski’s frame is distracting enough, his co-written story with Justin Haythe is an entirely different kettle of fish. Dialogue is relentlessly expository, and lacks any of the sinister venom you’d expect or desire, and the narrative is barely adept enough to sustain a 100 minute duration, let alone one of 146 minutes. A handful of moments throughout are impressive, but never are they surprising. In fact, the primary developments are brutally foreseeable, which leads to a lacklustre climax in which the preposterousness is cranked up to dizzying heights. The weaknesses in story makes for an over reliance on tone, and ‘creepy’ is no substitute for ‘compelling’.
The characterisation suffers consequently too, with only Isaacs’ beguiling doctor being of much interest. DeHaan is a fine young actor, but he isn’t given enough to chew on, and regularly finds himself aimlessly toddling through the many hallways of this puzzling prison; we unwilling dragged along for the ride. Goth, with her wafter-thin frame, does sickly very well; heavy-set eyes swallowed by bags, wiry hair draped across fragile shoulders, but considering she is the ill face of the promotional campaign, it’s surprising that she is absent for sizeable portions of the mammoth running time.
Much talk states that Verbinski’s latest is destined for cult status, and that audiences will either love it or loathe. One isn’t sure that’s entirely true. There is a great film submerged within the depths of A Cure For Wellness, but you’ll become breathless in your quest to locate it. Bobbing on the surface however, is a fetishistic, frustrating, and fairly hollow watch. Oh, and if you hate eels, this will do you zero favours. Seriously…
A Cure For Wellness is out now on wide release in UK cinemas.