Part screeching psychological thriller, part squealing body horror (and part total insanity), Gore Verbisnki‘s A Cure for Wellness pairs David Cronenberg to Shutter Island, adding a dash of Looney Toons to cherry-top this fantastical madcap chamber piece. Weighing in at a whooping 146 minutes, the big budget horror-thriller penned by Justin Haythe shifts a deliberately-paced creeper into a balls-to-the-walls sadistic sleeper hit, cranking its bat-shit absurdity high enough to break off the dial and cackling like a madman as it does so.
When a Swiss retreat that promises to open the eyes of its clientele claims a CEO whose financial services company is in the midst of a tectonic merger, a collection of callous board members send the ambitious Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), currently in hot water with the SEC over the sketchy business practices, to retrieve their former superior and current scapegoat. Not long after arriving, Lockhart senses that not all is well with the patients, or the doctors for that matter, at this “escape for the elite” but before he has a chance to make off with his windbag prize, he finds himself caught in a car accident, effectively putting him at the mercy of the very wellness center he is trying to escape.
Keeping our suspicions loose and freewheeling, Verbisnki assembles a macabre cast of creepers led by the closest thing we have to a hero in DeHaan’s suspicious and unstable Lockhart. The angular DeHaan, always a tall drink of unease, crutches the halls, creaking as he pads along the slick tiles of the spa’s maw. Not unlike the Overlook Hotel, the setting has life of its own. Lockhart will enter a room only to find that the exit has seemingly moved. Like the ventilation of the centuries old retreat, his mind creaks.
Undergoing an archaic aquatic treatment, Lockhart cannot be sure if the eels occupying his deprivation chamber are vivid hallucinations of something even more sinister.
As a protagonist, DeHaan is a dark chalice of withering sanity but his female counterpart does not fare much better. Hannah, frequently described as “a special case”, is played by the unsettling Mia Goth to rich effect. Goth, who is contextualized by her long-standing romantic relationship to Shia LaBeouf, is like a young Christina Ricci or a Helena Bohman Carter type. There is this palpably spooky quality that she brings to a role, regardless of who she’s playing. Hannah is a last bastion of innocence in such a seemingly haunted place and Dr. Volmer’s (the always villainous Jason Isaacs) obsession with the young girl is consistently a source of high anxiety.
As the perpetually chapped-lipped and chapped-minded DeHaan slinks the corridors of the eerie alpine spa, we find ourselves enrapt in the almost mystic set creations. Stylistically, Cure is absolutely decadent and so much of that is reflected in the austere, Gothic production design. From the appetite-whetting feasts of venison and head-on salted cod to the haltingly symmetrical halls and untamed alpine vistas, Verbinski scrumptiously mounts the action upon stunning backdrops, making the twisted tale to play out all the more eerie by compare.
With a couple bloated Pirates sequels and a dreadful franchise-whiff in The Lone Ranger under his belt, Verbinski reminds us of the sharp visual storyteller who make such films as Rango. Aesthetically, Verbinski employs similar framing devises to his breakaway remake of the Japanese horror sensation The Ring. The man has a curious obsession with the eyes of farm animals that is not neglected here. In many instances, he employs the chaos of the animal kingdom to further the story; unpredictable agents furthering the growing sense of isolation and claustrophobia. And when he really, really lets loose in the third act, all bets are off.
Though the trajectory of Cure is in many senses predictable, the path is not. An unintended side effect may mean that those looking for something more unpredictable plot-wise may find themselves disappointed with how straight-forward some of Cure might be. It lingers in parts, the ominous creak of DeHaan’s crutch as he circles the labyrinthine tiled corridors signaling the slow tick of a clock’s hand, and some may find themselves frustrated that it takes so long to arrive at its ultimate destination. That being said, the antidote for a familiar avenue is the decorative twists and turns along the path Verbinski and Haythe trod. And believe you me, there are some wackadoo turns here but they ultimately add up to something greater than the mere sum of its parts.
Upon further examination, Cure is delightfully dense (even though it is occasionally a touch dense in the pejorative sense as well.) Verbinski’s interest in parsing the dream world from our world is almost Guillermo del Toro-esque. Exploring the dark side of magical realism, he brings to fruition some of the most universal of human nightmares and fears. It is no accident that the many pilgrims to the retreat seek an escape from the flawed lives they once knew. They want to peel back their misgivings and find purity and immortality. No such luck awaits Lockhart. When Verbinski sets his focus inside the mouth, things get righteously squeamish. Like Malcolm McDowell before him, strapped down on the operation chair preparing for impromptu dental surgery, DeHaan’s eyeballs dart around his head like a game of pong. Common interpretation notes that the all-too familiar dream of teeth falling out symbolizes a fear of aging. A telling parallel for the ambitious themes at play here.
CONCLUSION: Gore Verbinski’s ‘A Cure for Wellness’ is a deliciously nasty serving of horror-thriller whose oddities amplify as it stretches on. Long-winded but absorbing, it plays like a symphonic homage to familiar themes that still manages to find its own sinister voice in and among the mania.