Like most Gore Verbinski movies, A Cure For Wellness delves into excess and extremism. A psychological horror-thriller in the vein of Shutter Island, The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and American Psycho, to name a few notable comparisons, it’s a demented, disturbing, delusional and utterly bonkers mind trip that, ultimately, weirdly charms you. Self-aware of its absurdities, and heightening them with pitch-black comedy and squirm-inducing visual delights, it’s a trippy, deprived mood piece that’s rich in translucent atmosphere, sickening imagery and heart-pounding discomfort. It’s an insane thrill ride.
On an untypical weekday morning, arrogant young hotshot financial executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is given an unusual assignment. With Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), the company’s CEO, secluded without contact in a remote Swiss Alps wellness center, where Pembroke shipped himself in order to cure an unknown (and presumed unreal) mental illness, Lockhart travels all the way to the mountains to retrieve his boss before their flailing company officially goes underwater. Upon arriving, Lockhart realizes Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the spa’s mysterious director, holds a weird power over his patients, one that enraptures Lockhart following an intensive deer-related car accident.
With his leg broken and his sanity questioned, Dr. Volmer performs a variety of different tests on Lockhart, all of which provide nightmarish visions and horrific eel-related images. Lockhart knows things must be askew, yet the evidence suggests he is, in fact, unwell. Only Hannah (Mia Goth), Victor’s much-younger sister, holds the key to his real safety.
Where so many directors service the studios these days, Verbinski genuinely takes risks. They don’t always work in his favor, admittedly, but he’s among the most exciting filmmakers we have working today, if purely because he knows how to excite you. His filmography ranges from generally misguided (The Lone Ranger) to criminally underrated (The Weather Man), but he’s an uncompromising, unrelenting force of cinematic fortitude. He is a filmmaker that challenges, provokes, intimidates and ultimately excites the viewer.
A Cure For Wellness is not his best work. It’s overlong, overstuffed, convoluted and its overreaching finale is perhaps a little (i.e. waaay) too goddamn ridiculous for its own, ahem, well-being. But Verbinski’s latest film, which is his first horror film since 2002’s The Ring and his first R-rated movie since 2005’s aforementioned The Weather Man, is an exhilarating, unintimidated mild return-to-form, filled with suspense, dread and gloriously invigorating unsettlement. Where other studio horror films lack a pulse, this movie pounds.
As such, this is Verbinski letting loose, freeing himself of nitty-gritty studio notes and overwhelming compromises, to make the ridiculous, inhibition-less horror film he didn’t ultimately make as a rightful follow-up to his unusually-inspired Ring American remake. For better or worse, Verbinski is a visual filmmaker with intensive drive and specific creative energy. To ignore or discredit that so easy — as his critics often do — is to discredit his persistent, continuous adversities in the face of studio-fueled cinematic banality today.
From the beautiful cinematography to the excellent production designs to the unnerving performances, notably from a committed DeHaan and a marvelous Goth, A Cure For Wellness isn’t necessarily the year’s most spotless movie, but it is an uncompromising accomplishment all its own. To hell to those who dismiss it due to its apparent influences. This movie might be inspired, yes, but that’s also what makes it so enjoyable and rousing. Yes, it is intemperately stylized and over-extended, but that’s what makes it all-the-better. Well, for the most part, at least. The creative liberties give it more queasy zest. The 2 1/2 hour runtime, while certainly exhausting, gets you further into the psychopathic madness.
Even in a time where horror films are more exceptional than usual, from The Babadook to It Follows to The Witch to last month’s surprising Split (at least, for the most part), A Cure For Wellness feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s fraught with high tension, unsettled invigoration and hard-fought artistic flourish, and that’s a damn good thing to see realized. Is it a masterpiece? Certainly not. Is it temperamental in its effectiveness? Sometimes, yes. But it’s just so exciting to see a movie this freely insane get the chance to go wild. Creative bankruptcy can be an uncurable nightmare, but that’s no concern for Verbinski.