Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth
Director: Gore Verbinski
Running time: 2 hours 26 minutes
By Jericho Cerrona
Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness isn't so much a standard genre film as it is a fetishization of the compositional image. Audiences going in expecting the kind of narratively taut thriller or heightened horror movie promised by the slick trailers will, of course, be aggressively disappointed, but then again, it doesn't seem Verbinski is even attempting to make something for the mainstream audience. Instead, this is the type of cineliterate exercise in formalism which traffics in Jodorowsky and Cronenberg references rather than jump scares or suspense tropes. As such, it's a radical swing from a filmmaker who has been drinking the Hollywood studio system kool aid for years (i.e. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, The Lone Ranger, etc). Therefore, if there's a cure for Verbinski's directorial sickness, it very well may be this unwieldy phantasmagoria of colliding tones which range from laughably self-indulgent to legitimately thrilling.
The story begins with corporate drone Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) being sent by his unnamed New York City business company to retrieve the CEO, Mr. Pembroke, from a Swiss Mountain spa retreat to which he's fled. The wellness center of the film's title takes up the majority of the film's overlong running time; introduced in a series of stunning shots where Verbinski places his camera inside, outside, and around the vehicle traveling up winding roads as Lockhart darts his head about like a caged animal. As the driver gravely spouts some expository backstory regarding the sanatarium's shadowy history, we are left to marvel, like DeHaan's entitled businessman, at the sheer scope and architectural design of the resort.
This lengthy introduction of the film's central location speaks to Verbinski's visual strengths as a lover of compositional symmetry. Rather than smash cut to a montage of Lockhart traversing up the hill, Verbinski takes his time; only revealing certain sections of the castle-like structure. This sense of prolonged suspense; in which the film's excitement stems mainly from the way Verbinski composes his shots, moves the camera, and uses dizzying cross-cutting, is indicative of the visual image as a fetishistic object above all else. Clearly, the dopey plot and thin characterizations are of little concern to him; exemplified by extended set pieces where Lockhart simply wanders around the sanatorium on wobbly crutches (following a car accident), to discover endless corridors and steam rooms housing naked old men. Truthfully, Lockhart isn't really a fleshed out character so much as an audience surrogate and pawn in the type of fish-out-of-water narrative we've witnessed ad nauseam. If the film ultimately resembles Shutter Island by way of 1973's The Hourglass Sanatorium, it's to Verbinski's credit that he so fully trusts in aesthetic pleasures beyond the point of no return, leading to a major studio product which resists the urge to play to it's base genre instincts.
Of course, Lockhart discovers that all is "not well" inside the retreat; the spotless white uniforms, placidly smiling guests, and immaculately manicured lawns all speaking to an insidious evil lurking just under the surface. As his attempts to wrangle the noncommittal Pembroke back to New York City begin to fail, Lockhart experiences his own set of vivid hallucinations; often involving a traumatic past incident with his deceased father. There's a massive sensory deprivation tank, throngs of slithering eels, period blood, dental torture, and a waifish young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth), humming whispered songs; and while these elements figure into the plot, it always feels as if Verbinski is lingering on them longer than most filmmakers dare, nearly goading the audience into tuning out completely.
A "special case" to which Lockhart finds himself drawn, it turns out Hannah is also the daughter of the resort's ringleader (Jason Isaacs), who lords over his patients with a disturbingly calm exterior. As the nonsensical plot unfolds slowly, with a series of third act narrative reveals which Verbinski treats with a mere shrug, A Cure for Wellness takes shape as that rarest of all Hollywood things; an original property unphazed by franchise mentality.
The idea of a big budget studio release existing simply as a compositional fetish object may be interesting only to a select few. Most require a satisfying story with defined characters, or at the very least, something which gooses tension through action, scares, and intrigue. A Cure for Wellness has a few of these ingredients in doses, and honestly, would have been more successful had Verbinski been able to trim some of his more self-indulgent tendencies. However, the bloated running time and obsession with meticulous set design, camera angles, and arresting visual tableaus are also part of what makes the film so fascinating. More than anything, it shows Verbinski pushing toward artistic integrity even as he trips over his own ostentatiousness as a visual stylist. More than anything, this is the kind of wonky vision we desperately need more of in mainstream American cinema. In fact, DeHaan's egotistical business goon could be a stand-in for the Hollywood system; leeching off the boom of retreads, sequels, reboots, and comic book fodder like soul-sucking eels. What's the cure, you ask? Perhaps a little dose of Verbinski bloat.