What a long, strange trip it’s been for Gore Verbinski.
This is a director whose filmography is full of movies that would at least put them in the populist filmmaker canon; from The Ring, which sparked the J-Horror craze, to the much-beloved first Pirates of the Caribbean film, and (in my mind, at least) the modern animation acid-western masterpiece Rango, it’s hard not to say that he isn’t an absolutely incredible filmmaker when he wants to be. But Verbinski’s seemed to kneecap himself after finding a major success, as he followed up the first Pirates with two mediocre sequels and the 2005 Nicolas Cage misfire The Weather Man, and followed up Rango with The Lone Ranger, which was both a disaster for Disney and, given Johnny Depp’s weird and slightly racist portrayal of Tonto, a heavy early favorite for “worst casting choice of the century.” Given he’s fresh off of a massive failure, his latest work, the horror film A Cure for Wellness, invoked the same kind of hope in me that I feel whenever I walk into an even-numbered Star Trek movie.
It’s safe to say that I think that hope was a little misplaced.
Young Wall Street power-player Lockhart (Dane Dehaan) is tasked (well, more like “blackmailed”) by the partners in his firm to recover their founder from a sanitarium in Swiss Alps for nefarious corporate reasons. Of course, one he reaches the expansive estate, and after suffering a particularly bad car crash in which he breaks his leg, Lockhart starts to notice that some shit’s weird around there. The history of the manor is full of creepy details about a Baron and his sister-wife being burned at the stake. For one, there’s no cell service, so he can’t call home to his employers, and the patients, each focused on “getting the cure” and escaping the business and material demands of the real world, all seem generically happy in that particularly creepy sort of way that Hollywood usually depicts the elderly like in order to get a disgusted rise out of the young audience. Plus, everybody there, save for some of the patients and the youngest patient there (Mia Goth), are European, so that means all of them are untrustworthy from the beginning, particularly the orderlies and the nurses. None more so than the head doctor, Volmer (Jason Isaacs, basically playing a German-accented version of his mad scientist from The OA), who keeps reassuring everyone of the healthy and healing properties of the water, straight from the ancient aquifer beneath the estate.
It’s a pretty solid setup for a psychological thriller, cribbing elements equally from classics like The Shining and Shock Corridor but mixing them up well enough that they feel new and fresh. There’s enough varieties of fear here to give everyone the willies at least once, though much of it is body horror, whether it’s as obvious our protagonist losing a tooth or something being slightly off about the lines on Isaacs’ forehead. Creepy is the operative word here, as it’s not really scary in any tradition sense (no joke, I’m a total fucking chicken who has to hold his ears during the horror previews and I wasn’t scared during this at all). The director’s trademark visual flair is on display here, and his collaborations with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (fresh off of Pete’s Dragon, the first truly remarkable work of his career) really pay off this time.
There’s a lot of creepiness to be extracted from the grimy, rotting cyanotype landscape of the sanitarium, and Bazelli’s work on this is exemplary, especially, for example, when taking something as ordinary as a guy walking through a tiled sauna and making it feel like a Windows screensaver from hell itself. That’s not to discredit his true money-shots, many of which have already been shown to death in the previews, but it’s the little things that really matter when you’ve got a full two hours and 26 minutes of movie to get through, and it’s equally hard to maintain that quality throughout.
That two-and-a-half hours proves to be the film’s undoing in some way, and it really starts to sag in the second act. Expendable characters come into view to pad out the runtime, and a jaunt to the local town for Dehaan and Goth’s characters in the middle of the film doesn’t do much to advance the plot as it tries to make us hate the village punks just as much as our buttoned-up stockbroker protagonist does. Bits and pieces of the creepy mystery within the story are teased out and about, and more thought was put into the various obfuscations and mechanisms of that puzzle than nearly any of the characters. Dehaan, surprisingly, really shines when he just lets his inner douchebag loose and plays somebody so completely unsympathetic you’re rooting for whatever punishments the rest of the film has lined up, but he’s shoehorned into an unbelieveable “romance” with Goth that’s never expanded enough to give any weight to the sacrifices they later make for each other. And it’s also hard to feel anything at all for Goth’s character (up until a point, and at that point I’d get worried about you if you weren’t at least a little empathetic), given that she’s a generic cypher for the men in this movie to express their desires on. To be fair, though, the story does keep you interested in that central mystery for much of the runtime, and it’s only during little gaps of boring that these flaws really manifest themselves.
I’d say the true test of this movie are the final 30 minutes, and your ability to stomach the ridiculous twists that are thrown at you in succession. Verbinski stops being subtle right around the 110-minute mark, and from there on it descends straight into madcap setpiece extravaganza, full of fire and violence but little true catharsis. There’s uncomfortable sexual violence as well near the end of the film, and although there are attempts by Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe to thematically justify its presence throughout the runtime as well it being a gothic horror trope (that young women are haunted by old and creepy men) made plain, this attempt at deconstruction falls completely and totally flat and really sullies what should be a ratcheting up of intensity. The final minutes are a lame fight scene that’s definitely a quality well below Verbinski’s pedigree, and completely rend the expert tone setup throughout the film. It’s sad, too, because Verbinski had several attempts to end this film before its descent into total nonsense, and each of them wouldn’t have left as sour a taste as the current ending does.
A Cure for Wellness is one hell of a mixed bag. It’s really odd that an absolutely gorgeous movie so assured of its tone and its cinematic vision for much of its runtime transforms into a totally different movie in its last minutes, and it’s a bummer to see Verbinski lose much of his talent for crafting interesting characters from the meeting of his writers and his actors. It stands out as a sort of lesser version of Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, but where that gothic romance succeed as a twist on its roots, this movie falls flat on its face.
Overall, it’s sort of like a carnival haunted house. You go in for the first few minutes, full of nervous jitters, driven around creepy corners with interesting funhouse mirrors and other crazy visuals, and this intensity ratchets up right until you hit the exit, where a disinterested carny dressed in a skeleton mask and a cheap suit pops out from around the corner. His mask and his suit barely fit him, his keys jangled right before he jumped out, and his nicotine-stained fingers rip you from a scary world full of possibilities and put you squarely back in the dank ride you’re in at the hometown fair.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.