So beautiful and so clumsy it hurts
There’s a moment pretty early in Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness when it seems the movie will end with some sort of twist. I’d normally refrain from giving out that kind of information in a review, but the film itself doesn’t seem concerned with hiding the idea. In fact, it does the opposite: minutes after encouraging the audience’s suspicions by laying out a conveniently unexplained mystery, Jason Isaacs — playing the enigmatic head of a mysterious sanitarium in the Swiss Alps — practically quivers while fawning over an antique locket that belonged to one of the property’s original owners. It’s the movie equivalent of those light-up wands used to direct landing airplanes: Hey, pay attention to this detail! It’s going to pay off later, you’ll see!
It’s frustrating, because A Cure for Wellness is a beautifully shot film full of interesting ideas, but it dumbs itself down at every possible turn. A psychological thriller about an up-and-coming Wall Street executive (Dane DeHaan) who questions his sanity while trapped in that mysterious sanitarium, A Cure for Wellness is fascinated by the destructive nature of the American work ethic, and how its idolatry has left us susceptible to gaslighting and far, far worse. But while Verbinski (director of The Ring, The Lone Ranger, and the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies) expertly crafts an atmosphere of ever-deepening paranoia, the film isn’t able to hold on to its larger aspirations. He seems so concerned that the audience won’t connect the dots that he collapses the film into a wreckage of blockbuster conventions that likely won’t satisfy anyone.
DeHaan plays Lockhart, a workaholic Wall Streeter (are there any other kind in movies?) whose bosses catch him pulling some ethical sleight-of-hand. The end of his career is all but assured — unless he’s willing to head to a remote wellness spa in Switzerland and retrieve the company’s CEO, who appears to have lost his mind and refuses to leave. Lockhart gladly takes the assignment and travels to the mysterious center, which is supposedly built upon a natural aquifer which gives its water healing properties.
The local townsfolk don’t regard the looming, castle-like facility too favorably, and Lockhart doesn’t bother hiding his disdain when he meets the gentleman that runs the place, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Isaacs, dripping with menace). The sanitarium has a reputation for attracting the elite from around the world, who hope to take advantage of its “purifying” treatments to wash away the stress of their professional lives. The strange thing is, nobody ever seems to leave, as evidenced by the smiling, far-too-happy Stepford patients Lockhart encounters. Sure enough, Lockhart is soon involved in a car accident, and wakes up with a broken leg as a patient of the facility. He begins to suspect there may be something sinister going on with Volmer’s spa, perhaps tied to a strange young girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who walks the grounds, but as he gives in and begins partaking of the doctor’s strange treatments, the line between reality and dream begin to blur.
Lately, I’ve been trying to stay away from describing movies as “lush” or “painterly,” but if any film ever stood up, climbed onto a table, and demanded that vocabulary, it would be A Cure for Wellness. Working with his longtime cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, Verbinski has conjured up a film where almost every frame could end up on One Perfect Shot to be studied and scrutinized. A train barreling toward a mountain tunnel, its windows a perfect symmetrical reflection; Lockhart and Hannah talking beside a mirror-like fountain pool; a slow dolly toward a seemingly empty therapy tub; even the most banal moments become opportunities for artistry. Production designer Eve Stewart further improves it with her detailed work, which gives the film a World War II-meets-steampunk vibe full of old-school medical equipment and vast sensory-deprivation chambers.
The hyper-stylization can become distracting at times, a problem exacerbated by the film’s deliberate pacing. Verbinski is interested in slow, creeping dread, and he doles out information and evocative imagery one morsel at a time. It’s effective at first, but unease soon gives way to frustration because Lockhart and the rest of the characters seem so far behind what the audience already understands. It’s not just telegraphed moments like Isaacs and the locket, either. Early on, Lockhart notices what appears to be a strange microbe in the water at the facility — something he doesn’t think about or follow up on, even though it’s obviously a vital clue to the heart of the film’s mysteries. There’s a gag with a malfunctioning toilet that’s obviously coming the moment Lockhart steps into the restroom — which would be fine, if it wasn’t set up two additional times before the eventual payoff. It’s as if the filmmakers aren’t sure the audience will understand what they’re doing, so they belabor every clue or setup multiple times to make sure the point is coming across.
Granted, there is an alternate way to see this particular storytelling tic. The generous read is that A Cure for Wellness is very much interested in delusion, and the lies we tell ourselves to justify our obsessions — professional ones, romantic ones, or those in between. It’s a movie full of reflections and mirrors, of alternate states of being, and in that sense, one take is that Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe are just making a point about how far down the rabbit hole of denial Lockhart’s own obsessions has taken him.
But that’s a subtle point for a movie that seems to think its audience is so dumb. Instead, Wellness starts to feel like a horror movie full of characters so impossibly stupid, that their behavior invites viewers to throw something at the (insanely beautiful) imagery on-screen.
Most infuriating of all is that despite all of that, A Cure for Wellness does manage to actually stick its landing. It concludes on a thought-provoking turn that feels both thematically and narratively satisfying. But then, two hours into its running time, the movie goes on for another 20 minutes, with an additional act that doesn’t just seem tacked on — it feels like it’s part of a different film altogether.
That’s where Verbinski’s blockbuster sensibilities break through, where the filmmaker who made The Ring transforms into the one who made The Lone Ranger in the span of two or three shots. The final act almost plays as parody, complete with a climactic showdown and massive sets burning to the ground. But the final insult is that Verbinski thinks he can get away with the switcheroo by falling back on the blurred line between fantasy and reality in A Cure for Wellness’ final moments. It not only undercuts the film, it suggests the filmmakers fundamentally misunderstand the tropes they’re working with. The endings of films like Inception work because the audience has been on the same emotional journey as the protagonists, and wondering what’s real and what’s not puts the viewer in the same existential dilemma as the character. But in Wellness, the audience is almost always ahead of Lockhart, and the ending feels like a bizarre last-minute cop-out.
The irony is that A Cure for Wellness is so frustrating because it gets so many other things right. It’s a breathtaking experience aesthetically, and there’s no better time for a movie that questions the human costs of an obsession with capitalism and personal success. (Right now it’s tempting to view all movies through the lens of political discourse, but there’s no mistaking the issues Verbinski and Haythe are interested in.) But by underestimating its audience, the movie loses what magic it does have, becoming a shiny bauble whose noble intent is left utterly inert.