Sometimes, a great trailer announces the impending debut of a movie that I had no idea existed, prompting it to rise to the top of my most anticipated list. Some prime recent examples of that would include Moonlight, The Nice Guys, and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Other times, an excellent trailer can get me excited for a film that ultimately disappoints in every way. Enter A Cure for Wellness. Before the release of the first trailer, I had zero interest in this movie whatsoever, nor was I really even aware of its existence. I watched all of Gore Verbinski's Pirates movies (but I only really liked the first two), and I never had much interest in checking out Rango or The Ring. So hearing that Verbinski is making a new film isn't exactly news in my personal universe. But Fox crafted something truly special with the teaser, and I was astonished by the visual filmmaking power on display. A Cure for Wellness looked like The Shining by way of Shutter Island, and I was practically salivating at the thought of seeing a grand, epic return to bizarre, big-budget horror on the big screen.
I was so convinced by this trailer that I placed the film at #18 on my most anticipated list for 2017, ahead of new films from Paul Thomas Anderson, Luca Guadagnino, and David Robert Mitchell. People generally seemed to like the film at Austin's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and I assumed that Fox was screening the movie early for press because of its exceptional quality. It's safe to say I was a little shocked when the embargo lifted and reviews were so brutally negative. I maintained a sense of false hope, which was destroyed as soon as I saw this mess of a movie. There will be worse movies in 2017, but few as bitterly disappointing as A Cure for Wellness. Wasting beautiful production design and loads of potential, Verbinski's overblown haunted house flick emerges as a movie of contradictions, as strange and disturbing as it is boring and flat. Despite its stunning vistas and clean filmmaking precision, this drab horror outing fails in just about every way, emerging as one of the most unfortunate big-screen disasters in a while.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is the superstar of a powerful Wall Street firm in a shady, almost dystopian New York. He's driven, charismatic, and quickly rising to the top. He's also a total scoundrel, who has cheated and lied his way to success. Lockhart is discovered easily by his superiors, and his job is threatened as they prepare for a merger and an investigation by the SEC. The only way to improve his status is to travel to a remote village in the Swiss Alps, a location that houses a mysterious spa for rich corporate types. The spa is currently the home of Pembroke (Harry Groner), the head of the firm and a power broker who has seemingly lost his mind. Lockhart's mission- retrieve Pembroke and bring him back to New York so he can sign the deal that will make everyone at the firm, including Lockhart himself, obscenely rich.
Lockhart makes the journey to the gorgeous town in Switzerland, but he's in no mood to appreciate the vistas. Despite befriending a taxi driver (Ivo Nandi), it's clear that Lockhart means business. He heads right to the resort, where he hopes to take Pembroke without the slightest of resistance. One bizarre encounter with the resort staff later, and Lockhart is on the same cab to a village hotel. However, he becomes involved in a nasty, brutal wreck, one that cleanly breaks his leg in two. He finds himself back at the resort, in the hands of Director Volmer (Jason Isaacs) and his assistant (Adrian Schiller). Considered to be in fairly bad shape, Volmer recommends that Lockhart take what's only known as "the cure." As the young businessman finds his way around the shady castle, he soon realizes that not everything is as it seems, and a series of strange encounters with a young patient (Mia Goth) lead him to discover the mystery behind the world's most dangerous spa.
A Cure for Wellness is a masterclass in aesthetics, and there's no doubt that this is one of the most beautiful horror movies in years. It's sophisticated and macabre, created with the kind precision that is so rare in today's landscape. In addition to that, Verbinski injects some serious weirdness into this film. It was what attracted me to this movie in the first place, and we do get plenty of strange sequences of disturbing, esoteric horror- strange dental procedures, lots of eels, and a random scene of a man masturbating to a naked nurse. Unfortunately, all of these visual tics are nothing but smoke and mirrors, pretty elements masking a vapid, nonsensical plot and flat storytelling. Everything in A Cure for Wellness looks very cool, but a numbing sense of boredom sets in early, and as the silly, preposterous mystery unfolds over an absurd 146 minute runtime, things only get worse for Verbinski's house of horrors.
Essentially, A Cure for Wellness in its current form feels like a messy, incomplete first cut of a somewhat entertaining horror flick. It's a strange swirl of ideas and visual cues, without any sense of storytelling cohesion beyond a strong commitment to constant strangeness. Verbinski clearly wants this movie to be about something, but amidst the scattered, bloated nature of the project, all of his ideas are lost. A Cure for Wellness could have been a really interesting story about the soul-sucking nature of corporate America, as well as the constant search for a solution to what ails us and our never-ending addiction to prescription drugs and treatments. Instead, Verbinski dabbles with these ideas before ultimately ignoring them, settling for a series of wacky scenes that deal with incest, murder, and other "taboo" topics. You can feel him throwing everything at the screen in the hopes that something sticks, but it just comes off as puzzling and excessive.
I'm hesitant to put all the blame on Verbinski, as the screenplay by Lone Ranger and Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe does the film no favors. While Verbinski can't bring any of this material to life in an exciting, stimulating way, Haythe's story is just a complete fiasco. He tries to blend elements of fantasy, mystery, and horror into a fascinating confection, but he isn't successful with any of the genres. The narrative attempts to be kooky and disturbing, like an extra screwed up version of a Tim Burton movie, but the flashes of abnormal violence come off as forced. And most importantly, the characters are so flat, so one-dimensional that any sense of emotional connection never comes close to fruition. It's one thing to make your lead character an unlikable prick, but it's another thing entirely to make him a boring, unlikable prick. Dane DeHaan's Lockhart is a smarmy cipher of a main character, and while I've liked DeHaan in the past, he has nothing to do here. Same goes for every supporting character, as they're defined by their usefulness to the narrative and not their personality or story. Mia Goth's Hannah is a silly plot device without any sense of individuality or autonomy, Jason Isaacs' talents are wasted on a ridiculous villain, and the other members of the crew fall short as well.
The end result is a convoluted movie with no sense of emotion or intrigue. It isn't frightening, it isn't compelling, and you'll solve the mystery in no time. From there, the film just drags on and on, growing more asinine and more tedious as each moment passes by. Somewhere along the way, Verbinski was told that he could pull off a Stanley Kubrick movie, and it just feels like a miscalculation at every turn. A Cure for Wellness starts off with an awkward sequence and it doesn't get any better from there. When your "horror" movie has more unintentional laughs than scares, you know you're in trouble. With all of these pieces in place, Verbinski and Haythe should have at least managed to put together something that worked in one way or another. Unfortunately, A Cure for Wellness simply lies there on the screen, dragging itself along as it moves through its horrendously lengthy runtime without even the slightest sense of energy or charm.
As someone who frequently complains that we need more original movies in Hollywood, a part of me feels genuinely bad for panning a film as ambitious as A Cure for Wellness. Verbinski shoots for the stars with this beautiful horror creation, but the sad truth of the matter is that absolutely nothing in this film works. It's devotion to being aggressively strange is admirable, but when you're working with a movie as one-note as this one, nothing really matters. A Cure for Wellness proves once and for all that weird does not equal good, and that no matter how gorgeously designed a film is, it just doesn't work without a good story at its center. Verbinski's horror show wants to be provocative, intellectually stimulating, and disturbing all at the same time, but it fails on all counts. Despite some terrific craft elements, there's no fun to be had here.
THE FINAL GRADE: D+ (4.8.10)
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox