Synopsis – An ambitious young executive is sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from an idyllic but mysterious “wellness center” at a remote location in the Swiss Alps, but soon suspects that the spa’s treatments are not what they seem.
My Take – I get it why this film was a box office bomb (grossing $27 million against its $40 million production budget), mainly as it presents itself as one of those ambitious Gothic horror films like Stonehearst Asylum (2014) & Crimson Peak (2015), were there is a lot of like about, mainly due to its freshness, yet ultimately goes on for too long, hereby hampering the story-line by stretching it too thin & just falling apart in the climax. Even though there are apparent parallels to other thrillers, I couldn’t help but appreciate the fact that this movie was original, especially in a world that is currently predominated by reboots, remakes, prequels and sequels, watching a movie that is based on an original script, felt very refreshing, but mere originality doesn’t make for a good film. Here it seems, director Gore Verbinski, the man behind the first Ring movie, the Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts starrer The Mexican, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Oscar winning animation Rango, and the western bomb The Lone Ranger, intended to design this Hitchcockian Gothic psychological thriller as stunning, bold and hypnotic experience on the lines of the Island of Doctor Moreau, but the problem is, for all the wealth of the material and passionately created world, the story and characters are disappointingly shallow. Narrative tension works like an inclined ramp with the viewer taken to higher levels until they are tripped over the edge for tension relief. The angle is low for comedy and romance, and high for drama and horror & if a film cannot sustain tension we call it flat. A run time of about 146 minute is a very long time for a fantasy horror to sustain tension and that is why this Gore Verbinski film feels more like an eerie melodrama. Once the film’s premise is laid out in the first quarter, the narrative tension curve goes the wrong way. Despite this, however, the film is undeniably watchable, and remains engrossing from start to finish; mainly due to its gorgeous cinematography, dreadful atmosphere & performances.
The story follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious young executive of a top financial institute who upon closing a big account receives an excellent promotion & is called up to see the board of directors. At first, they congratulate him on winning the account but inform him that based on the illegal activities he has been undergoing, they have enough information to have him arrested. To win the board’s trust back & to complete a merger, Lockhart is tasked with retrieving Pembroke (Harry Groener), the company’s CEO from a wellness center in the Swiss Alps from where he refuses to come back. However, when Lockhart arrives at the center, after traveling for hours, he is turned away, as he is past the allowed visitor’s hours. On the way, out from the creepy center, Lockhart’s car crashes and he finds himself inside the wellness center as a patient, having slept for 3 days straight and with his right leg in a cast. Introduced to a staff that are all dressed in white and doctors, who seem hypnotized or out of place from another era, it is only after the meeting the man in charge, Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) & Hannah (Mia Goth), a young girl with a special condition, Lockhart begins to suspect that the so-called spa’s treatments are not what they seem, and also notices that everyone has been constantly drinking water and they all take their dose from a blue vial. Even after Lockhart is forcefully convinced to try out a few treatments to make him better, Lockhart begins to suspect everything especially after finding out the dark history of the previous residences of the center. One cannot deny the ingenuity of director Gore Verbinski, mainly as artfully weaves stories through a centrifuge of age-old storytelling techniques, and sumptuous world-building. Sometimes it feels as if Verbinski creates his worlds without even trying; the filigree and lore of Pirates of the Caribbean films and Rango (2011) exists almost as a state of fact. This film takes that same instinct and eye for detail to the stratosphere, providing an opulent and unique playground for all the film’s ghouls to play in. The alpine roads leading up to the Swiss sanatorium where we lay our scene, hug the mountains like laces of a tightly fit dress. The naturalism of the verdant bluffs compare starkly to the shimmering glass buildings where our lead has found his professional niche. Exactly what’s going on, and why no one ever seems to leave the place, takes quite a while (146 minutes) to unspool, but Verbinski successfully distracts the viewer with visually arresting images of hallways, of peacefully exercising old people, of slithery fish, of living and maybe dead bodies in all shapes and sizes (but mostly white and old), and so on. A teen girl, the only young person besides Lockhart, may hold some clues. Rather than a lush island, the sanitarium is high on a mountain, but the effect is the same, as if the viewer has been transported to a world apart. If this all sounds good, then you’ll probably like this very dark fable. You will fall in love with the cinematography by DOP Bojan Bazelli. Even if you’re not a fan of mystery or suspense, Bazelli‘s cinematography for this film will leave you floored, the word breathtaking doesn’t even begin to fairly describe it. There are shots through the tunnel, around the castle, and even during some of the film’s most disturbing moments, they draw you in, gorgeous in every possible way. And the fact that they actually filmed a big chunk on location at Castle Hohenzollern in Germany does help because the place becomes a supporting role. From the moment the film opens, there is a tone that inspires you to look at and listen for details throughout the film. The fact that the teasers and trailers reveal very little about the plot is beneficial to the overall experience of the film. Just when you think you have the plot figured out, you will be thrown for a loop and question what you thought was predictable. In all fairness, I figured out a very important aspect to the plot midway through after a particular line delivered by one of the central characters prompted me to have one of those aha moments. However, I was still continually intrigued by the film’s delivery and visual storytelling. The fact that I figured some rather crucial information did not detract from the experience. Early on, it is clear that there is something not right with the spa, and gathering information and piecing together the puzzle will draw you in closer to the film. Without giving anything away, there are definitely clues along the way that reveal the dark mystery and history behind the exclusive mountain retreat wellness institution. There were a couple of unsettling moments in the movie that will make you feel disturbed or squeamish with the treatments. The direction constantly shifts from being mystery suspense to psychological and a thriller. That keeps you wondering, if it is all in Lockhart’s head? And he is sent there for a reason. Or Did Lockhart discover something sinister about the facility? Is there really a cure for wellness and being better?
These questions constantly keeping going back and forth which can also be the downside that makes the film a bit anti-climactic. Being a psychological mystery horror thriller, the script should have been several steps ahead of the audience, challenging them and then throwing them off with many sophisticated executed twists, turns and red herrings, which this film refuses to do so. Yes, the mystery is intriguing, but all the setup, detective work, and excessive focus on dried out dialogue took away from my curiosity. In addition, Lockhart’s treks through the facility have little suspense to them, partially due to the security being surprisingly lax, and the sense of urgency being rather diluted. The overall pace of the film is slow and without anything to spice up the climax, the 146-minute run-time feels much longer. Maybe if the ending had been more satisfying the wait would have been well worth it, but sadly the film failed in this regard for me. While certainly unique, the film got a little too creative at times and stretched into the realm of extremely bizarre. It was an attempt to blend science with magic, as two very different paths blended together into an awkward twist I didn’t quite comprehend at first. And even the execution at the end wasn’t that impressive, as the cheesy theatrics came to a rushed ending. But the biggest limitation is the number of disturbing scenes contained in this film. Imagine, if you will, the traps of the Saw films. Remember the gore and suffering portrayed in those moments, where our poor cast was forced to scream until they met their fates? Well, this movie mimics those details again, only without Jigsaw’s cleverness or convoluted designs. You’ll get to see some truly psychotic moments in this film, as Lockhart falls victim to the treatments and “pampering” that must have been born in Hell. Although handsomely made and crafted, it falters when it’s time to scare or shock us. Each scene feels like a foreboding puzzle, trying to connect with very little help from its central players, leading to a third act twist that while maybe surprising, will leave others unsatisfied. However, the film remains watchable thanks to its lead actors who do a fine job. Ever since his big break in the found footage superhero film, Chronicle, Dane DeHaan has been an actor that’s caught my attention because I do believe that this rising star has what it takes to be great, and this film allows him to showcase a tease of that potential. Jason Isaacs, no stranger to playing a creepy villain, delivers a disturbingly convincing performance as the strange doctor overseeing the almost clandestine treatments for an unknown sickness. Mia Goth‘s performance adds a great deal of uneasiness to the film by coming across as innocent, child-like, all the while hiding something creepy and peculiar about her very pretense at the facility. On the whole, ‘A Cure for Wellness’ is a watchable film for its outstanding cast and its spectacular looking visual direction despite fizzling out due to its excessive run time & standard script.
Directed – Gore Verbinski
Rated – R
Run Time – 146 minutes