Mark Reviews Movies

A Cure for Wellness


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gore Verbinski

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth, Jason Isaacs, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Ivo Nandi, Harry Groener, Tomas Norström, Ashok Mandanna, Magnus Krepper, Rebecca Street 

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language)

Running Time: 2:26

Release Date: 2/17/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 17, 2017

The screenplay for A Cure for Wellness eases itself into the story's horror elements. Director Gore Verbinski, though, goes straight into them, creating an atmosphere of unease from the start. It's a strange conflict between a director feeling the need to establish expectations and a screenwriter wanting to keep those expectations to a minimum for as long as possible. Screenwriter Jason Haythe tries to pull off some narrative sleight of hand here, while Verbinski is telling us and showing us exactly where we should be looking.

The result is odd—and not simply on account of the sinister places to which the story goes. It's a mystery that never feels too mysterious, because we know from our first arrival to the story's central location that something is dreadfully amiss. It's a commentary, first, on the psychologically draining aspects of the modern world and, later, on the apparent need for people to create problems just so they can be cured. That's to say the movie's thematic concerns exist as an irreconcilable contradiction: People have made themselves sick in the pursuit of what they consider achievement, but if you go looking for the cure to that illness, it's going to be worse than the disease.

The movie's heart doesn't reveal itself until the climax, and at that point, it dives headlong into a macabre and twisted mixture of Gothic horror and romance. It's a move that is equal parts satisfying, uncomfortable, and confounding—the first because the movie finally unchains itself from the rules of previously established game, the second because of the content, and the third because, well, it's weird even within the context of the rest of the movie.

After an eerie prologue featuring a man dying of heart attack in an empty office space (preceded by a creepy melody being hummed against shots of a dark cityscape), the story follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who takes over the job of the recently deceased man. The board of the financial firm where he works orders him to go to a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps in order to retrieve the firm's CEO. They need the boss to approve a merger that will save the firm.

It's clear that something is wrong at the sanitarium. Patients play games in the courtyard and offer too-perfect smiles when Lockhart encounters them. Nobody—especially Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the doctor who runs the place—seems to want Lockhart to have access to his boss.

While on the road back to the nearby village to call his firm, a stag runs out in front of the car, ends up in the windshield, and causes the vehicle to flip off the road. The first sign that the movie's visual effects aren't up to the task of Verbinski's sometimes morbid vision for the material comes immediately after, as the wounded deer staggers across and collapses on the road. The concept of image is both pathetic and unnerving, but its execution leaves much to be desired.

There are other moments of grisly imagery here, as Lockhart becomes an unwilling patient of the sanitarium, having broken his leg in the accident. There's a strange distancing effect that comes with them, though. Part of it is in the reliance on unconvincing computer-generated effects, which undermine the impact of swarms of slimy eels, turn a scene of unwanted dental surgery—a squirm-worthy idea if there ever was one—into a joke that goes on too long, and reduce a gruesome revelation near the end of the movie to a walking, talking, and unconvincing lump of mincemeat.

That's just part of it, though. The real hampering element to the movie's tension-building and payoffs is a narrative that switches between a Kafkaesque tale of wrongful imprisonment, the mysterious and ever-evolving history of the incestuous occupants of the castle that stood where the sanitarium is now, the uncomfortable relationship between Lockhart and a fellow  patient named Hannah (Mia Goth) whose mental and actual age are in question, and scenes of nightmarish horror that may or may not be the result of Lockhart's diminishing mental state.

Haythe's screenplay is mostly a collection of ideas without much direction. Much, for example, is made of the unaddressed trauma associated with Lockhart witnessing his father's suicide when the protagonist was a boy. Aside from connecting it to a vaguely similar incident in Hannah's past (which turns out just to be some foreshadowing for a late revelation), though, it is mostly left unaddressed. Despite DeHaan's appropriately smug performance, Lockhart is an inconsistent protagonist, too. He's active in looking for his boss and trying to uncover the secrets of the sanitarium, but Haythe renders him fairly useless whenever the plot doesn't require him.

There's a lot of circling around the movie's central dramatic question, which, essentially, is the secret of the sanitarium. A Cure for Wellness mostly feels like a long process of delaying the answer, and while it occasionally does so with chilling style, it too often feels like wheel-spinning. It's a puzzle, as one character makes clear, but if we're continuing with the movie's own metaphor, that puzzle possesses a few too many extraneous, distracting pieces.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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