I feel as though I have learned two things about Gore Verbinski: he hates water and he should direct more horror movies. Between The Ring – a film about a ghost girl whose presence is announced by torrents of water – and the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Verbinski apparently finds water to be, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, the source of all death in the world. (Keep in mind also the importance of water in his weirdo animated film, Rango.) Enter A Cure for Wellness, in which water often figures as the scariest thing onscreen, while also functioning as the one thing that can save the characters. Maybe.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a workaholic associate at a financial firm on Wall Street who is poised to step up in the company. First, in order to facilitate a big merger, he is tasked with retrieving the absent CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener) from a Swiss sanitarium that is located in the foothills of the Alps. He arrives at the castle and meets Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who presides over the patients, almost all of whom are pensioners who have retired from a lifetime of success in one business venture or another. Volmer cites the restorative properties of the sanitarium’s waters as the source of his patients’ rehabilitation.
Lockhart finds Pembroke and convinces him to return to New York, only to have his car destroyed in a collision with a deer and his leg broken. Lockhart himself becomes a patient at the sanitarium, and begins to see strange things, like a mysterious girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who seems apart from the rest, and eel-like creatures dwelling in the sacred water. The erratic behavior of the orderlies and the subtle decline of the patients lead Lockhart to begin investigating the sanitarium’s darker secrets.
Another often unfortunate characteristic of a Verbinski film is its length. The Pirates films clock in at or over two and a half hours each, as does the loathsome Lone Ranger reboot. A Cure for Wellness does the same, but this time it feels appropriate, despite the film’s firm position in the horror genre, which tend to improve with brevity. Like The Ring, A Cure for Wellness is a slow burn throughout most of its runtime. Plot points are revealed earlier on and are developed with a methodical approach that feels at odds with other mainstream horror films, which tend to jump from one event to the next, telegraphing everything just before it occurs. Although it’s not difficult to suss out the ending if you’re paying attention, the small details the film metes out build intrigue along with atmosphere. You feel the walls closing in much the same way that Lockhart does.
There is a difference between horror and thriller, and A Cure for Wellness certainly fits the latter category. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, while at times a touch overbearing, pairs well with Bojan Bazelli’s moody cinematography and Verbinski’s careful compositions, to say nothing of Eve Stewart’s excellent production design. The other horror films of the season – the execrable Rings and the inept Bye Bye Man – were made by amateurs, while Verbinski is a seasoned veteran who knows how to tell a story visually. Nearly every shot is framed in the most interesting way possible, which may be part of the reason why the film takes its time the way it does. Its lackadaisical pace, while a plus for me, does detract from the tension a bit. Verbinski is better skilled at creating memorable images than he is at startling or scaring the audience. His approach is to fill you with unease and keep you off of level ground, a subtler method that it underused in the genre. A Cure for Wellness may not be terribly scary, per se, but it is certainly is unnerving.
DeHaan is often cast in angsty roles like this one because his gaunt face and lean build naturally lend themselves well to darker characters. He doesn’t have stray from his comfort zone too much here, but he holds the film almost entirely on his shoulders, which may be a first in his career. Ever since Harry Potter, Isaacs is almost a surefire bet for a villain, although he plays empathetic quite convincingly, too. As a function of her character, Goth is mostly there as a physical presence, an unreachable form of perfection that dares you to corrupt her. As you watch the film, DeHaan makes it difficult to decide whether he is trying to save her or steal her away for himself.
I don’t want to oversell the movie, but rather to posit that it may be underrated. The carefully constructed atmosphere collapses towards the end in favor of an everything-must-be-revealed ending that works to undo the beguiling mystery that preceded it, although the final shot is quite enigmatic. I don’t mean to say that it leaves the door open for a sequel – because, really, who wants that? – but that you may be unsure of how to feel about it. A Cure for Wellness is itself a sort of salve against the idiotic hysteria put forth by most horror cinema. It may not be on par with the achievement of recent films like The Witch or It Follows, but it certainly deserves to be mentioned in any discussion.
Horror | Twentieth Century Fox