But Cure For Wellness falls well short of greatness

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

A Cure for Wellness
Opens February 17
3 out of 5

I suppose we ought to talk about Gore Verbinski. The name may mean nothing to you but in the last 15 years he’s been a more influential filmmaker than Spielberg. Verbinski spearheaded the Pirates of the Caribbean original trilogy, brought J-horror to Hollywood in The Ring and is responsible for the most misunderstood blockbuster in recent memory, The Lone Ranger.

His smaller movies are his best ones: Rango and The Weather Man are endlessly rewatchable.

In spite of The Lone Ranger’s box office disaster, Verbinski somehow convinced Fox to hand him (at least) US$50 million to make a subversive gothic terror romp. A Cure For Wellness is an inventive, visually stunning flick that’s more about slow burning than jump scares. A Cure For Wellness aims to make the audience uncomfortable and is willing to alienate critics and fair-weather genre fans to do it. In the era of cheapo Blumhouse flicks with no production values, good stories or even mildly competent actors, this, at least, is refreshing.

The story: Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, Chronicle), a pushy, ethically challenged young executive, is charged by his company board to find their CEO. The old man’s last communication indicated his desire to remain at a Swiss health spa and withdraw from the rat race. His colleagues want him back to prove he’s out of his gourd (like in Collateral Beauty, only less terrible).

The spa in question is a foreboding-looking castle in which every outdated treatment involves the underground spring water that has made the location famous. The place is run by Dr. Volmer (hello to Jason Isaacs), a seemingly kind physician who believes successful people have their priorities backwards, namely work over health. His patients — all of retirement age — seem content. Except, that is, for Hannah — a teenage girl who seems perpetually spaced out.

Not only is Lockhart unable to find his boss, events conspire to keep him confined to the spa. He learns the castle’s creepy back story (like all the good ones, it involves forbidden love, fire and an angry mob) and other dirty secrets that may get in the way of Lockhart ever rejoining civilization.

While elements of the story are genre tropes (it also owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”), the production design makes A Cure For Wellness pop. Every scene is carefully curated, from colour-coordinated exercise balls to medical equipment from yesteryear. The castle’s muted tones, and geometrical precision in the use of screen space, give the film an additional coat of otherworldliness.

Verbinski uses primal fears against the audience: teeth are a frequent target, eels are harbingers of doom, and the so-called hero finds himself locked in small spaces more often than not. Thematically, we can’t help but notice Lockhart and Volmer’s fixation with the much younger Hannah. It’s icky and the movie does nothing to assuage our concerns.

Regrettably, A Cure For Wellness’ many virtues can’t hide its shortcomings. Chief among them is the length. It may be by design (a snake chasing its own tail), but by the second fake ending, I was getting frustrated. Then there’s the rowdy teens who antagonize Lockhart: they seem straight from a German staging of West Side Story, and kind of ruin the mood.

Also problematic: The insane ending. There’s an unsavoury trend in horror films that Wellness doubles down on. I’m all for balls-to-the-wall conclusions, but certain elements here feel exploitive in the worst way.