146 min. | R
For movie critics, it’s occasionally hard to resist reaching the end of a movie and predicting a general audience’s reaction. My prediction for A Cure for Wellness: “People will hate this movie.”
This isn’t exactly my own feelings about the film. Indeed, a lot of what makes it fascinating—or at least luridly fun—is exactly what might turn off a lot of people. But A Cure for Wellness is also frustrating, in part, for what it promises but doesn’t deliver.
Plus, if you’re going to make a freaky amalgam of allegory, morality play and body horror, tell people in advance what they’re in for. The opening minutes do make it clear something sinister is going on. From a prologue set amid forbidding skyscrapers and slate-grey skies, the story transitions to a financial whiz-kid named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) who may have cut a few regulatory corners to seal his latest deal. His bosses then blackmail him into a strange assignment: retrieving the company’s CEO (Harry Groener), from an exclusive Swiss spa from which he has sent a message claiming he intends never to return.
When Lockhart arrives at the “wellness center” run by Dr. Vollmer (Jason Isaacs), he finds a cult-like atmosphere, along with a creepy history of the castle location. Creepiness is a vibe director Gore Verbinski manages well—he directed the first American iteration of The Ring—and he sets the stage with some arresting shots, like a room full of glowing computer terminals, and an image playing off the mirrored surface of a European train.
The production design is a top-to-bottom delight. Ominous hospital corridors and steampunk-y isolation tanks create a sense of dilapidated menace; patrons and staff are all dressed in white. There’s never a moment when the images aren’t fascinating.
Eventually, however, there’s the not-inconsequential matter of what A Cure for Wellness is ultimately about, and that’s where things get messy.
Initially, it promises to use its solve-the-mystery structure to explore the contemporary “disease” of power-mad careerism. Will Dr. Vollmer turn out to be the villain or its hero, addressing the existential black-hole in the lives of his wealthy clientele? How does this remote mountain hideaway fit into a world of faces-staring-at-screens anxiety?
A Cure for Wellness turns out to be considerably more complicated than all that, including the identity of the mysterious, childlike young woman (Mia Goth) who stares down from the castle walls and hums unsettling tunes. Verbinski finds it hard to avoid “overly complicated” (consider his sprawling Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and The Lone Ranger). The mythology gets more complicated by the minute, until the resolution tests the limits of when you say, “Seriously, that’s where you were going with this?”
And that’s not even touching on all the unpleasantness in the second half: dental torture, disgusting forced ingestion, rape, incest, and general material average viewers would not applaud. A Cure for Wellness could have slipped a modern lesson into its sinister setting, but opts for bloated, operatic, Gothic horror. At least there’s never a dull moment before ticket-buyers scurry unhappily toward the exits.