Studio films rarely get as bonkers as A Cure for Wellness. While admirable for its audacity, Gore Verbinski’s stylish gothic horror throwback is plagued by a drawn-out twisty plot and allusions to several other existential chillers that undermine the demented experience. There’s a bizarre, discomforting thriller trapped inside the film’s prolonged 146-minute runtime, but there’s too much numbing, repetitive rubbish suffocating the strangeness.
A financial firm’s CEO has retreated to a wellness center in the Swiss Alps and he’s needed for a big merger. Motivated, unscrupulous company lackey Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve him. Arriving at the isolated fortress in the mountains, Lockhart discovers aged, Stepford Wive-ish patients raving about the methods of Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and eager to find “the cure.” Hannah (Mia Goth) warns the young capitalist that “no one leaves,” which proves prophetic when Lockhart is involved in a car accident and becomes a patient at the clinic. Snooping around and receiving increasingly strange hydrotherapy treatments, Lockhart begins to unravel the mysteries of the castle and its ghoulish history.
Things start off intriguingly with both the mood and the metaphor. Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli establish Wall Street as a prison of steel and glass, bathed in a sickly green hue. While burning the midnight oil in one of the non-descript offices, an executive/drone has a heart attack and it’s uncomfortable to watch.
Early on, Lockhart’s need for advancement is efficiently shown as unfulfilling, his fast-talking methods earning fleeting moments of satisfaction when he exerts control over underlings and, eventually, spa employees.
Contrasted with the stressful business maneuverings, the picturesque property in the Alps, with green lawns and blue sky, briefly seems like a relaxing respite. Of course, we know immediately there’s ugliness under the façade. Everyone talks in an affected enthusiasm and employees are constantly reminding Lockhart to drink his water. He probably should slow down when he spies the small slugs in his glass, but he gives the archaic, creepy clinic in the mountains the benefit of the doubt.
After establishing the setting, A Cure for Wellness becomes a collection of beautifully captured images that fail to maintain a consistent tone or provide motivation for its unlikable protagonist. The mood is similar to, and several shots are reminiscent of Shutter Island, but there’s no intrigue to the mystery here. Lockhart gets bits of pertinent information exactly when he needs them and there’s little question of his sanity, or lack thereof. It’s also probably unwise for the shady health center to keep books on its origins readily available for research.
There’s also no logical, or even unnatural, reason for this place to remain a secret or for Lockhart to so willingly submit to its treatments. He alternates between being a defeated man giving in to Isaacs’ disarming doctor and a desperate man trying to escape. As an ambitious corporate weasel, he’s all about self-preservation and it’s hard to believe him as the reluctant hero. DeHaan’s perma-pout isn’t very persuasive. Goth’s repressed, yet sprightly weirdo doesn’t provide enough incentive, either.
To its credit, the film is never completely dull, with the visuals maintaining a certain level of curiosity. Damp corridors, antiquated medical devices, and dream-like visions hint at horrors to come, though the uneasiness dissipates the more the story meanders. By the third time we see eels slithering around in the toilet, they’ve lost their allure.
The squirminess never feels distinct. A scene in a dentist’s chair recalls a device used in A Clockwork Orange with actions akin to Marathon Man, though not nearly as unpleasant. The score is a derivative Morricone-for-Argento lullaby. These, and several other, influences are more regurgitated than absorbed.
Make no mistake, A Cure for Wellness goes to some very dark, gory, shocking places. It’s just too clinical, and disorderly, to distress or entertain.