There are so many sudden and extreme moments of brain-nauseating excess in A Cure For Wellness, the new film by director Gore Verbinski, that it might as well be called Trigger Warning: The Movie. Everything from injured animals to sexual assault to dental phobia parades across the screen like a 17-car pile-up, each moment seemingly designed to out-trigger the last. However, instead of building on themselves to produce genuine fear or dread, they end up invoking the most frightening terror of all: absolute boredom.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
The story, as much as there is one in the first place, begins with Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious young executive of dubious morals. The board of Lockhart’s company charges him with retrieving CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener), who has been on sabbatical at a strange “wellness spa” in Switzerland. Lockhart finds that Pembroke refuses to leave, and after he suffers a broken leg in a near-fatal car accident on the road to the spa, Lockhart himself becomes a reluctant patient of the spa’s director, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Things are of course not what they seem, and with the help of a mysterious young girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), Lockhart begins to uncover the true, sinister purpose of Volmer’s spa and the nature of the “cure” that so many of the residents are desperate to receive.
Relax. The drowning sensation is quite normal.
A Cure For Wellness should have been a welcome and long overdue return-to-form for Gore Verbinski, the same man who directed The Ring, one of the best horror films of the last 20 years. Wellness boasts the same limited, aquatic-inspired color palette, the visuals are often as elegiacally mesmerizing, and the soundtrack is one of its most compelling characters, but that’s where the comparison stops. Instead, Wellness feels like an overheated mishmash of some of the tropes that Verbinski himself is responsible for creating, almost like a desperate attempt to reclaim his former glory and help make people forget that he’s responsible for three of the continually-diminishing Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Perhaps Wellness’ greatest problems, beyond the atrociously logic-averse screenplay that seems to run entirely on plot holes, is the fact that there are too many moments that echo other icons of horror. The opening scenes are scored to a wordless, slightly off-tune lullaby, much like Rosemary’s Baby. Lockhart’s trip to the spa features several long tracking shots in the country, much like The Shining. The film’s obsession with water, eels, and vaguely occult shenanigans suggests a heavy H. P. Lovecraft influence, and it’s focus on body horror suggests the early films of David Cronenberg. It even occasionally has the ridiculous, campy charm and gothic twists of a good Hammer Horror film.
Come enjoy our world-famous eel baths!
None of these comparisons are things that the movie ever manages to truly shake off, and it’s a constant reminder that nearly everything that the film does has been done better. Verbinski’s able to build an admittedly and effectively creepy atmosphere for the film, but he does so with other people’s tools, cheating his way to the end result much like how Lockhart leapfrogs his way up the corporate ladder in the film’s first act. He’s not helped by Justin Haythe’s script, which feels less like a story and more like a series of unfortunate events that are vaguely connected by a shared setting. Plot twists can be deduced by anyone with a bit of genre-savviness, and the characters are constantly doing completely idiotic things solely for the purpose of plot advancement.
Between Verbinski’s borrowed aesthetic and Haythe’s head-against-the-wall script, the cast does what they can with decidedly mixed results. Lockhart is an unsympathetic and unlikable protagonist, but Dane DeHaan tackles the role with as much energy as he can muster. While he succeeds in almost making Lockhart semi-dimensional, the character is so shoddily-written that his efforts often seem like he’s trying too hard to make something out of nothing. He’s far better than Mia Goth, who beyond having a name that perfectly sums up the film, does nothing to raise Hannah up from the horror naif-waif archetype. (She also further reinforces comparisons to The Shining with her uncanny resemblance to a young Shelly Duvall.) Similarly, Jason Isaac’s Volmer is a walking, sociopathic cliche, but the actor’s innate charisma, magnetism, and subtle intensity make the character come alive.
So THAT’S what happened to Hans and Franz.
The thing that truly poisons the film, however, is Verbinski’s lack of restraint and inability to edit. The film is at least 45 minutes longer than it has any right to be, and the third act has three or four points that would have served as a perfect, more ambiguous ending, but Verbinski keeps right on going. Similarly, he lingers far too long on the film’s most cringe-worthy moments, mistaking quantity for quality. It’s not enough to show the broken body of the deer that causes Lockhart’s accident; Verbinksi spends what feels like a full minute showing the poor creature trying to walk on shattered legs. It ends up making the film feel less like an exercise in horror and more like a bratty teenager hopelessly trying to get a rise out of inattentive parents.
In the end, Wellness has nothing to say. If it’s a metaphor for something, that metaphor is lost in set dressing, mood, and a preening sense of artifical unease. The film’s climax explains nothing and raises far more questions than it answers, and not in the ambiguous, thought-provoking way that Verbisnki likely intended. It’s an infuriating, muddled mess that feels like a rough draft of the sleek, streamlined, nerve-damaging horror film it should have been. In its desperate attempt to shock, it’s sick and twisted in all the wrong ways.
FBOTU Score: 3 out of 10 / D