“We build, we buy, we consume,” a gravelly voice intones as our eyes bear witness to the bleak, blank towers of New York City skyscrapers, towering over the drab roads beneath and stretching up towards an impenetrable blanket of grey clouds. “We wrap ourselves in the illusion of material success. There is a sickness inside us…and only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure.”
Such is how Gore Verbinski’s return to horror begins, with a wonderful dollop of atmosphere and foreboding. Unfortunately it is this very opening that sets the stage for its overall inadequacy, and where the director promises an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it is regrettable that it ends up devolving into something far less.
In an unspecified year in the 2010s, an executive for an unspecified firm who we only ever know as Lockheart (Dane DeHaan) is dispatched to Switzerland by his superiors to retrieve a business associate named Pembroke (Harry Groener) as they need him for a merger and also hope to pin several costly and unsightly corporate dealings on him upon his return. Lockheart is sent to a ‘wellness centre’ where Pembroke resides, a health institution located within the Swiss Alps. At first only interested in finding Pembroke and leaving as soon as possible, complications swiftly arise, and underneath the eerily utopian veneer of the facility there is something much more sinister afoot – something Lockheart becomes determined to unearth.
This is Verbinski’s return to the genre for the first time since 2002’s The Ring, a passion project that is his first original work since 2011’s Rango. Having been in development since 2014 and having no prior attachment to any existing franchise like most of his work over the past 15 years, the stage was set for him to pour his heart and soul into this production – and as a veteran film-maker it is undeniable that he has done that with respect to the technical side of things. Elements of the cinematography and the mise-en-scene are doubtlessly striking, from the looming, opaque obelisks of the metropolis fleetingly seen throughout the film’s first act to the picturesque scenery of the Alps with Hohenzollern Castle taking centre stage. The scenes involving the institute are often appropriately off-putting in their calmness or claustrophobic depending on the tone, and although Verbinski continues to have trouble with the length of his productions it is undeniable that possess the craft to bring out shots to their fullest. The dichotomy between the beauty of the institute’s surroundings and the disconcerting attitudes and horrific actions displayed within its walls enhances the palpable sense of tension that lingers ominously early in the film, and as the film’s plot places a strong emphasis on water, Verbinski uses it to striking effect in his own way in many shots and scenes – particularly the introduction of Mia Goth’s character along with the highly-publicised eel tank scene. It is splendidly filmed and superbly shot but all the sweeping vistas and dimly-lit rooms in the world cannot compensate for the problem that lies at the core of this endeavour.
A Cure for Wellness will most likely be remembered as a cautionary tale of the dangers of excess
The crippling issues with A Cure for Wellness chiefly lie in a few things, but the most outstanding problem of all is its identity crisis. The picture’s script is penned by Justin Haythe, a man most known for receiving a BAFTA nomination for a novel adaptation – 2008’s Revolutionary Road – and Verbinski’s own disastrous 2013 blunder, The Lone Ranger. Just as that film was raked over the coals for its tonally uneven script, the writing of Wellness finds itself on a similar keel – it starts out as a feature that lays sufficient groundwork for some potent psychological horror with the enigmatic ‘cure’ perhaps promising to serve as a commentary on the human condition and the nature of consumerism, and as it plods along across its achingly long 2 hour and 26 minute running time it gradually loses sight of what it wants to be. It wavers between psychological thriller, an ode to B-grade Hammer Horror shlock and something that tries its absolute hardest to be bizarrely experimental in just how uneasy it can make audiences to the point where a sort of threshold is crossed – the director’s insistence on focusing on these things, some of which are flatly repulsive, is deeply disconcerting and may unintentionally say more about the man himself than anything else.
Another pressing issue is that the film reeks of excess and liberal editing could have improved the quality of the final product immensely. Instead the film is content to putter along as it spares no expense in showing us fancy trivialities such as the myriad of oddball treatments that patients go through, or games of croquet, or shots of the natural landscape that are lingered on so lovingly that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is a holiday advertisement in an elaborate disguise – come to Central Europe to find the cure!
The story of the whole affair, too, does little justice to the thick air of dread and mystery created by its early teasers. It is well acted, that much is certain – DeHaan and Goth, who plays the part of Hannah, a mysterious waif kept secluded from the other patients, give sufficient performances even if DeHaan is perhaps a bit young to play a character who is initially defined as a ruthless corporate hotshot. Jason Isaacs delivers an affably sinister display as Heinrich Volmer, the facility’s director, and a handful of other cast members have standout roles as well, with Celia Imrie getting some spotlight as fellow patient Victoria Watkins. These strong casting choices, however, are ultimately wasted by a plot that sadly doesn’t even attempt to conceal its overall predictability, made starker by the horribly unsubtle use of particular framing devices and tropes that enable one to piece together the entire plot before the film is even half over. The feature’s length gives ample time for viewers to ruminate on how patently absurd some of the story beats are upon analysis and how Lockheart makes every effort to agree to perform mind-bogglingly gullible actions despite his situational awareness until the narrative demands that he rebel in earnest. The film’s first act is genuinely rock-solid, but then it dithers as Lockheart ambles about and the film becomes more focused on showing than doing.
The quality of the narrative nosedives as the film finally enters its final furlong and never recovers. It is most certainly not without its moments of competence, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s soundtrack is additionally solid, but other than its peculiar and frankly off-putting narrative quirks, A Cure for Wellness will most likely be remembered as a cautionary tale of the dangers of excess. It forgets what it wants to become, discarding a gripping first act for tired horror tropes in a new coat of paint and seems to be more focused on wondering how many eels it can put on the screen instead of giving us a solid plot. It is strangely fitting that an homage to gothic horror transforms into a cinematic Frankenstein, a mutant comprised of half-formed ideas, derivative plot threads and general incoherence that gets in the way of any real fear – and that is saddening, for true potential lay within this film, lying untapped beneath the waters. There may be no cure for wellness yet, but this may serve as a remedy for the drawbacks of unchecked ambition.