Director Gore Verbinski will never be accused of going small. His three Pirates of the Caribbean films grew progressively larger, and his last film, 2013’s misbegotten flop The Lone Ranger, suffered from a bloated two-and-a-half hour running time. In A Cure for Wellness, Verbinski has forgone the marquee names, ostensibly to make a more intimate picture, a psychological thriller set in the Swiss Alps that nevertheless clocks in at 146 minutes, despite the efforts of not one, but two editors. The man can’t help himself.
Verbinski stated his intention to make a shocker in the mold of such horror classics as 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, 1973’s Don’t Look Now and 1980’s The Shining, but he and co-writer Justin Haythe (one of the co-writers on The Lone Ranger) have crafted something much more along the lines of a Giallo film. This 20th-century genre of horror pictures and thrillers from Italy fused strong production design, music and visual style while frequently lacking logical narrative coherence or well-defined characterizations.
Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, and the character’s lack of a first name only underlines this Wall Street stockbroker’s dearth of depth. Sent to a remote Alpine medical spa by his failing firm to retrieve the company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), the young man is unable to convince his boss to return to New York. Lockhart attempts to head home empty-handed, but he soon discovers what has been rumored since his arrival: No one ever leaves this palatial “wellness center.” Laid up in a cast with a broken leg, the result of a car accident that occurred as he was departing the spa, Lockhart is soon diagnosed with the same nebulous condition as the other, much older patients by the ominous Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Endlessly told to drink the spa’s natural water as part of their treatment, Lockhart and the rest of the residents actually seem to be getting sicker.
Realizing he and the others are more inmates than patients, Lockhart begins snooping around, encountering Mrs. Watkins (Celia Imrie)—an eccentric old woman who fills him in on some of the 200-year-old sanitarium’s darker secrets—and the hauntingly beautiful Hannah (Mia Goth), the only other patient close to his age and the one who could hold a key to the plot’s puzzles. Maybe.
Verbinski has dabbled in horror before, most explicitly in his 2002 psychological thriller, The Ring (a remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu). Although he’s certainly in command of his craft, the script he and Haythe have hashed out never equals the sum of its parts.
Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli—another holdover from The Lone Ranger, who also lensed The Ring—delivers strong digital work, relying on darkness and shadows for the film’s interiors, captured in the derelict Beelitz-Heilstätten military hospital outside Berlin. They contrast with the bright sunlight that bathes the beautiful exterior of the complex and the visual effects that fill out the Alps in a number of gorgeous shots.
Presumably to keep the budget down after all the money that was lost on The Lone Ranger, Verbinski has bypassed his usual composer, Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, in favor of Benjamin Wallfisch, an up-and-comer who’s having a good year with his work in this and the historical drama Hidden Figures. Wallfisch expertly evokes the work of Giallo maestros like Ennio Morricone, especially with a memorable piece of music that Lockhart hears Hannah humming before he meets her. It’s the same song that emanates from a music box made by Lockhart’s recently deceased mother. Can these musical cues somehow be connected? I’m hard-pressed to tell, since the film’s mysteries are presented in such a haphazard manner that the script actually requires a character to explain his nefarious plot to our hero, a la a James Bond villain, even though we’ve had more than two hours to puzzle out what’s Really Going On.
OK, so the plot is secondary to the chills (stay far, far away if you have an aversion to slithery creatures like eels, or dental horrors not seen—or heard—since 1976’s Marathon Man). Still, there’s almost enough here to keep you riveted to your seat, even though the film asks questions that it never bothers to answer and lacks the conviction to dig deeper. What is the sickness that ails modern man? Are ambition and selfish desires for wealth making us sick? We may never know.
The “cure” that awaits Dr. Volmer’s devoted patients—oligarchs and heads of industry—may be one big con, but doesn’t that also sum up the “treatment” viewers receive when sitting down for the quick dose of “entertainment” a film like this provides?
Now, enjoy your popcorn!
A Cure for Wellness **1/2
Starring Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie, Harry Groener, Magnus Krepper, Ivo Nandi, Johannes Krisch and Jason Isaacs. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Justin Haythe, based on a story by Haythe and Verbinski. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.