Film Review: A Cure for Wellness

There’s a great 100-minute movie hiding somewhere in the 146-minute 'A Cure for Wellness.'
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Fifteen years after scaring audiences senseless with The Ring, Gore Verbinski returns to the horror landscape with A Cure for Wellness. Or perhaps I should say “horror-adjacent,” as A Cure for Wellness is more an exercise in Gothic storytelling than anything particularly frightening. It has the secluded castle with the ominous backstory, the striking visual aesthetic, the slow-burn creepiness. What it doesn’t have: a clear enough sense of the story it wants to tell.

We’re introduced to young, ambitious executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) as he moves into the office of his predecessor, a middle-aged family man who worked himself straight into the grave. In order to keep his newfound prestige, and the corner office that goes with it, Lockhart must ship off to the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company’s wayward CEO (Harry Groener), who’s sequestered himself in a luxurious “wellness center” due to some enigmatic ailment. For Lockhart, this isn’t just an errand: Without the CEO, the Feds start digging into his company’s dealings, and the less-than-scrupulous Lockhart probably winds up in jail.

Soon, Lockhart has bigger problems to deal with. The spa is run by a German-accented doctor (Jason Isaacs) obsessed with “purity” (alarm bell number one), and there are all the expected ominous rumblings: rumors that no one ever leaves, antagonistic villages, a staff that won’t let him see his boss, and a “cure”—water from the aquifer underneath the castle—that seems to make its patients sicker.

All the stylistic elements are here for a cracking Gothic tale—if only someone had swatted Verbinski with a rolled-up newspaper and told him to rein it in a little bit, my God. A Cure for Wellness is overindulgent to a fault, complete with needless repetition and subplots that go nowhere and add nothing to the overall story. How may times do we need Lockhart realizing there’s something wrong, leaving the castle…then going back? Then realizing there’s really something wrong…then going back? There are whole scenes that could have been cut with zero impact on the overall story.

Actually, scratch that—a good paring down would have made this movie better. Because there are good elements here, but they’re watered down by all the padding that surrounds them. Particular kudos go to production designer Eve Stewart, a four-time Oscar nominee who strikes just the right tone of ascetic hospital creepiness, and costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road). Her contributions, in particular, help define the characters of Lockhart and Hannah (Mia Goth), a mysterious girl of indeterminate age who’s the spa’s youngest patient. Surrounded by patients and staff alike much older than them, the clothes worn by the pair—childlike dresses that evoke Alice in Wonderland for Hannah, an oversized business suit for Lockhart—make them look even more like children caught in a dangerous world they can’t possibly comprehend.

If the style’s there, the substance is sadly lacking. One gets the sense that Verbinski thinks he’s telling some grand parable about ambition, guilt and sin, something that would justify its epic running time, but really…there’s not much there. What is there is exceedingly well-crafted. Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography is breathtakingly gorgeous, and there are some body-horror scenes whose squirm-worthiness puts them in the ranks of Cronenberg. (Those afraid of the dentist and/or eels should be cautious here.) There’s a camp element, too, that’s at odds with the “I’m so serious” image the rest of the movie puts forward. The last 20 minutes, where all the plot threads finally come together, take a sharp right turn into full-bonkers, monster-movie territory. It feels like a completely different film. It feels, to a certain extent, like the film A Cure for Wellness should have been: something weird, unsettling and Gothic that knows what it is and doesn’t take itself too seriously, like 2015’s Crimson Peak. As it is, there’s enough good to make A Cure for Wellness watchable, but too much bad to elevate it above the merely middling.

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