There are some directors who need to be told, “No.” They become too successful, and then whatever idea they have gets put to screen without any challenge. Director Gore Verbinski has had the kind of success that would let this kind of ego run rampant, and yet I feel like to do that would be to stifle his style. His films are delightfully bonkers, and while they could stand to be trimmed and refined, I also have to applaud the unabashed lunacy he pursues. That insanity is on full display in his latest feature, A Cure for Wellness, a film that wants to explore themes of guilt, domination, paranoia, and do so within the trappings of classic horror sprinkled with a generous helping of the macabre. It doesn’t always work and the ending is somewhat unsatisfying, but Verbinski sends his audience on one hell of a ride.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a cutthroat junior executive at a financial services firm in New York City whose underhanded ways are discovered when the partners find out he’s been falsifying his business deals. Faced with the prospect of prison, Lockhart agrees to go to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the firm’s CEO, Pembrooke, who can be blamed for the firm’s current crisis. In exchange, Lockhart avoids jail, earns a promotion, and gets his sad little life back. But when he arrives at the spa where Pembrooke is presiding, he discovers that bringing him back isn’t so easy. On the drive back to the hotel, Lockhart gets into an accident, breaks his leg, and becomes a resident at the spa where he finds disturbing secrets at every turn.
The biggest problem with A Cure for Wellness is that it feels like three scripts crammed into one movie. The first script deals with Lockhart, a lonely guy who has forsaken emotion and human connection after the childhood trauma of witnessing his father’s suicide. The second script deals with a guy discovering the strange happenings at a sanitarium where nothing is as it appears and the “treatment” yields a strange effect on everyone. The third script is about a mysterious young woman, Hannah (Mia Goth), her protective guardian and the sanitarium’s head doctor Volmer (Jason Isaacs), and a legend regarding a twisted family relationship at the castle that now functions as the sanitarium.
The problem is that these three storylines don’t really work together. Lockhart is a deeply unlikable protagonist, so while he’s capable enough at leading us around the sanitarium to discover its various mysteries and secrets, we don’t really care what happens to him. He’s not a good guy in over his head or someone who made a simple mistake. He’s callous, cold, and deeply self-centered, and DeHaan lacks the tough guy persona to make that kind of attitude come off as romantic. Instead, it comes off like his Harry Osborne character from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a bad week in the Swiss Alps. It also doesn’t help that his character dealing with survivor’s guilt doesn’t really factor into the other plotlines.
And yet I can’t entirely fault Verbinski for overreaching. Unlike his previous film, The Lone Ranger, which felt like a bloated vanity project for Johnny Depp, A Cure for Wellness comes off like an overexcited director who wants to cram as much of his love for classic horror and weirdness as possible into the two-and-a-half hour runtime. Even though the movie doesn’t entirely work, it’s enjoyable to watch a director’s imagination run wild when that director is as imaginative as Verbinski.
It doesn’t hurt that A Cure for Wellness is absolutely gorgeous. Although it’s cribbing from classic horror films, he makes the look all his own and Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography creepily glides through the many horror shows the sanitarium has to offer. The movie also benefits from Eve Stewart’s stunning production design, which makes the story feel like it takes place out of time even though it exists in the modern day.
The overall aesthetic gives A Cure for Wellness the feeling of a waking nightmare, where you’re not exactly sure what’s real and what’s not, and that surreal vibe permeates the entire film. It can be a little frustrating because Verbinski is a master of his craft; it’s just that he always goes overboard. Sometimes that can be enjoyable, but with just a little refinement and polish, A Cure for Wellness could have been a horror classic. Instead, it suffers from trying to do too much and teasing out mysteries that become distractions.
Instead of focusing on the story, you’re constantly trying to “solve” the sanitarium, what’s going on with Hannah, how the tale of the twisted family factors into the present day, and wondering if the answers have any payoff. Sadly, it never really comes together, and while the film is enjoyable when take piecemeal, overall Verbinski’s reach once again exceeds his grasp.
A Cure for Wellness will be released on February 17.