A CURE FOR WELLNESS. Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth. Directed by Gore Verbinski. 146 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).
Walking out of ‘A Cure for Wellness’, I was unsure what to make of it. A few hours later, I’m still working through my feelings. I went in as a fan of director Gore Verbinski – I think ‘Rango’ is one of the most fascinating animated films of the last decade, and no blockbuster devotee could ever forget the shock they felt when ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ turned out to be a masterpiece of popcorn cinema. I think I still am. For its numerous faults, ‘A Cure For Wellness’ is a wild ride, with Verbinski’s uniquely arresting visual style employed to tell a classic tale of gothic body horror, albeit one that runs for almost two-and-a-half hours and reaches an utterly, utterly mad conclusion. Like I said, it’s somewhat of a headscratcher.
After his superior is killed by a massive heart attack, young finance exec Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is promoted in his stead. His position comes with a pressing mission; the CEO of his company, Pembroke (Harry Groener) has been unreachable for some time at a Swiss health retreat, and Lockhart’s first task is to bring him back to New York. A bit of a shark, Lockhart immediately travels to Switzerland, perpetually chewing through his supply of nicotine gum and giving orders to his co-workers back home. However, when local driver Enrico (Ivo Nandi) drops him off at the mountaintop entrance, the modern world seems to fade into white noise.
Built on the ruins of an 19th century Baron’s castle, the sanatorium is distinctly old yet somehow free of time. White-robed patients play badminton and croquet on the lawns, under the watchful eyes of stiff-backed staff and the looming towers above. Inside, the design from Eve Stewart is fascinating – airless and oppressive yet free from any truly distinct personality. In fact, with its tiling palette of pastel aquamarine and cream, it evokes any of the inner-city pubs recently given that generic throwback facelift (you can probably picture what I mean here). There is no mobile reception nor modern technology on display. After his first attempts to contact Pembroke are thwarted, Lockhart tries to head back to the village below, but a horrific car accident puts his mission on the backburner.
It’s a classic set-up – a character trapped in some institution and told that they are unable to or should not leave. Lockhart awakes with his leg in a cast and the sanatorium’s director, Volmer (a slimy but charming Jason Isaacs), offering to assist with his recovery. Of course, not all is as it seems. Lockhart is particularly drawn to Hannah (Mia Goth), a bewitching young woman whose age sets her apart from the elderly clientele. Goth is an entrancing presence, somehow alien and threatening but with childlike mannerisms to give her a vulnerable side. She is contrasted with DeHaan’s Lockhart, whose permanently arched eyebrows and obnoxious smirk give him an air of arrogance that the funny goings on at the institution will gradually chip away at.
The final act plays like screenwriter Justin Haythe threw together ‘fluoride in drinking water’ conspiracies, tales of the fountain of youth and a little bit of ‘Beautiful Kate’. It’s as mad as it sounds, and more happens in the final half hour than in the two hours preceding it. It is wrapped up quite cleanly, but it feels a little too neat given everything that preceded it.
Furthermore, at 146 minutes, ‘A Cure For Wellness’ is indisputably too long. Horror films rarely breach the two hour mark, and most only play for around 90-minutes. I had mixed feelings about the length here – I liked the very deliberate build-up and the atmosphere that it generates (it’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror movie until the last act), but it also verges on boring – by the third time Lockhart hears his toilet’s flush lever clinking in the night, we know what’s coming and its already lost its impact. There’s a much tighter version of ‘A Cure For Wellness’ buried in there somewhere, but Verbinski and editors Pete Beaudreau and Lance Pereira just didn’t find it.
Gore Verbinski is one of several working directors who is often described as ‘visionary’, a catchword often thrown about in marketing materials but one that Verbinski earns. The word in his case refers to directors whose eye for imagery results in startling shots – think about the work of Alejandro Iñárritu or Zack Snyder – but is not always a synonym for narrative excellence. Several moments captured by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli will linger in the memory; a corpse lying in an open plan office hemmed in by glowing computer monitors, a large eye through a magnifying glass swimming in the out-of-focus body framing it. The haunting images that Verbinski employs to tell his tale are often more impactful than any ‘jump scare’ string cues that mark other horror movies, which makes sense given the evocative but spare score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch.
‘A Cure For Wellness’ reminded me somewhat of ‘Stoker’, Park Chan-wook’s dark and atmospheric 2013 film about a family of killers. It too suffered from a script that couldn’t match the power of its images, and it too wrapped up in a whirlwind ending. ‘Stoker’ has not lasted in the public conscious, and I fear ‘A Cure For Wellness’ will suffer that same fate. In the scheme of things, it is not an enormous loss, but the loss of such a unique vision should also not be discounted. No doubt, Gore Verbinski will have the privilege of creating another film soon. Despite my uncertain feelings toward ‘A Cure For Wellness’, I must say that I am interested to see what he does next, and if a filmmaker can generate a consistent appetite for their work, then theirs must be a job well done.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 16.
20th Century Fox.