From downbeat dramedy character study The Weather Man, to Oscar winning, beautifully-ugly animation with Rango, to big-budget failure with The Lone Ranger, and of course to blockbuster franchise-crafting success with the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Gore Verbinski has a CV that demonstrates a filmmaker looking to tackle vastly different, ambitious ideas, no matter the scale. With The Ring, Verbinski did an all too rare thing in Hollywood: successfully remake a foreign-language horror film. The Naomi Watts-starrer perhaps didn’t ace it across the board with all critics, but it did big business and gathered quite the fanbase – this writer included.
Now, around four years after the stumble that was The Lone Ranger, Verbinski is back in horror territory with a Rings-esque visual palette on offer with A Cure for Wellness. Unfortunately, although we have the director’s signature strong visuals to enjoy here, much else falls short of greatness.
Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, an ambitious young go-getter sent by his company’s board members to retrieve the CEO from a mysterious “wellness centre” located in the Swiss Alps. The company’s board members make it clear that they intend the CEO to take the fall for a number of unscrupulous business deals that are holding back a financially beneficial company merger. Lockhart agrees, his ambition and disregard for roadblocks known as morals fueling his every move. Once at the centre, it doesn’t take Lockhart long to realise things are not what they seem. The “patients” are peculiar and the strange staff members seem to be giving him the run-around. And then he’s involved in a car crash. When he awakens, his leg is plastered and the head of the centre, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), informs him he’ll need to stay for a while to recover. He may as well relax, Volmer tells him. Plus, he can still get to his CEO while he’s there, right? No prizes for guessing that things go from bad to worse from here on out.
It’s an intriguing premise that allows for plenty of mystery and tension, and for a good chunk Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Lone Ranger) juice it nicely, establishing paranoia effectively and drip feeding strange happenings early on. Things are undoubtedly creepy and weird at this remote Swiss centre, and it’s almost fun to see just what unsettling developments Verbinski and co. will hint at or reveal next. What is that fluid being drank from cobalt bottles? Why is Lockhart having strange visions/daydreams? What exactly are these patients suffering from and how are they being cured? Plenty of questions are thrown up, and as Lockhart unravels, hits walls, takes two steps backs, unravels again, rinses and repeats, the audience is taken on journey that, despite offering doses of quality, doesn’t end up at a satisfactory destination.
There’s clear artistry here. Verbinski crafts a number of memorable, very effective scenes that have you glued to your seat, the lens beautifully framing up unsettling imagery and the sound design ensuring your nerves get a good workout. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, Pete’s Dragon) certainly deserves a shoutout, as does four-time Oscar-nominated production designer Eve Stewart (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables). In fact, for the most part, A Cure for Wellness’ technical elements are very impressive; certain scenes could stand as damn fine short films.
Alas, while many of the paint strokes are striking, it becomes increasingly clear that all isn’t quite coming together as well as it should. The concerns arise with the film’s overall narrative, which unfolds awkwardly, relying on a repetitive formula of tension building and shock-factor climaxes that do little to expand the overall plot. Once the answers do begin to reveal themselves, mostly disappointment awaits, considering the outcomes to some of the mysteries Lockhart has yet to uncover have already been hinted to the viewer in much too obvious fashion. And it certainly doesn’t help that the plot becomes increasingly silly and almost ridiculous as it plods along, threatening to completely derail much of what you’ve enjoyed beforehand.
The last act descends into pure madness, going the route of an old-fashioned, over-the-topic gothic horror melodrama. In another film, one that suggests a tone of this sort earlier on, perhaps this transition into a knowingly theatrical finale wouldn’t be so laughable and cringe-worthy. It’s almost as though Verbinski, (who co-crafted the film’s story) and Haythe wanted to make a psychological creepfest that was fueled by paranoia and mystery, but they were also desperate to have fun with unrestrained, gleeful horror; they couldn’t find the balance.
Fortunately, the lead players put in strong performances. DeHaan is exhausting, intense and riveting throughout, even if his character’s arc struggles to find completion. Isaacs seems to be having a lot of fun as the malicious Volmer, throwing himself into the part completely and even coming close to inserting some kind of fun in that disappointing finale. Mia Goth, who broke out in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, fits her character well, giving an appropriately strange and innocent performance as a girl Lockhart comes to know whilst at the centre.
In the end, the picture frustrates with its narrative choices and the path it chooses to take. When at its best, the film intrigues and unsettles well, delivering wonderfully crafted moments that get the nerves going and the mind racing. The potential is just too often lost, with various plot turns telegraphed much too early and some developments threatening to appear nonsensical and inconsequential in retrospect. A Cure for Wellness sets itself up nicely and then loses its way, settling as a second-rate gothic thriller. The fact that the film consistently skirts around mastery perhaps makes it all the more disappointing.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10