A Cure for Wellness and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Gore Verbinski
You know, Gore Verbinski is a much more versatile director than I think he gets credit for. Sure, he made three Pirates movies and then that Pirates movie in the old west, but he’s also got The Ring, The Weatherman, and Rango under his belt too; all really solid movies. Hell, even his big blockbuster films are at least interesting if not always good! Okay, The Lone Ranger isn’t even that much, but I’ll give credit to those Pirates movies for being fantastically well-crafted even if the story wasn’t always there to back up the designs. Now he seems to be going back to his roots in a way as this is the lowest budget he’s had to work with since The Weatherman, and he’s also heading back to the horror genre which seems like a pretty good idea considering how well that Ring remake turned out. Is this a new benchmark in horror that all others will be compared to, or will this be a catastrophic failure the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Lone Ranger? Or you know, it COULD be somewhere in between those two. Anyway, let’s find out!!
The movie follows an up and coming… business man of some sort named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) who’s sent to some faraway Wellness Center somewhere in the Swiss Alps to retrieve the owner of the company he works for. You see, the board of directors got a strange letter from their boss Mr. Pembroke (Harry Groener) that he’s found the cure for what ails him at this facility and that he’s never coming back. Of course, if he REALLY didn’t want to be bothered anymore, he would have included official documents removing himself from the company to go along with that letter, but if he did that then Lockhart wouldn’t have a reason to go and we wouldn’t have a movie, now would we? It also helps that Lockhart did some illegal… business stuff I guess that he thought he had kept secret but the board knows ALL about it and is holding that over his head to get him to go to Switzerland. Once Lockhart gets there, its IMMEDIATELY clear that something just isn’t right about this place. Is it the creepy staff that acts like condescending zombie vampires? Is it the strange girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who’s comes and goes with seemingly little understanding about the world around her? Maybe it’s the fact that the head of the facility is named Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) which is probably in the top ten villain names of all time! I’m guessing it’s that. Well any normal person would just bolt it to the airport at this point, but Lockhart JUST SO HAPPENS to get in a nasty car accident on the way back from the Wellness Center and wakes up back at the facility a few days later with a cast on his leg. Well since he isn’t GOING anywhere for now, he might as well try to find Pembroke and see if there’s some shady shit going down in this Wellness Center that puts a little too much emphasis on water and for some reason uses REALLY outdated medical equipment. Will Lockhart get what he needs from Pembroke and save his job? Just what is going on in this creepy facility with so many creepy people and creepy equipment? Is the cure that everyone is looking for… love!?
The movie is pretty good, but it’s unbelievably frustrating in the ways it manages to sabotage itself from being great. Hell, in the first half hour of this movie, I was convinced that this would be a best of the year contender considering just how brilliant Verbinski’s cinematography is coupled with the great acting and the intriguing story. Then the movie keeps going. Then it keeps going on longer. And then even more. And then a little bit more for good measure. And then finally… it’s over. But then there’s more after that. This seems to be a problem with a lot of Gore Verbinski’s work after the first Pirates movie where the entire production has to wring the absolute most content possible out of the resources at hand. For visuals, this tends to work out pretty well as the Pirates movie are completely gorgeous to watch, but it’s also why they became increasingly frustrating to sit through with bloated run times, convoluted stories as well as character motivations (At World’s End literally had to take time out for all the characters to decide which sides they were on), and just a general lack of structure and pacing. Those problems are in this movie (good GRIEF, are they!) but they manage to be tempered by everything else that he manages to get right.
The movie is at its best when it’s immersing you in this strange world that is completely inexplicable for Lockhart and by extension the audience, yet is still mundane and clinical. There’s nothing supernatural or alien about this place, yet it’s completely inaccessible for those on the outside looking in; clearly bringing to mind allusions to cult behavior or even unscrupulous aspects of the self-improvement industry. The title is very apropos considering everyone who comes to this facility is very well off, yet still feels a sense of unease and malaise in their daily lives that all the wealth and power in the world can’t seem to solve. This makes it that much easier for the Wellness Center (and real life places like it) to take advantage of their spiritual emptiness through promises of simple and ritualistic solutions (REGAIN CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE WITH THESE FIVE EASY STEPS! JUST THREE EASY PAYMENTS OF $29.99!) to solve whatever they feel is wrong with them. All of that is great, but I am a bit curious about the decision to specifically focus on elderly patients specifically as they make it clear that the Lockhart is the youngest person to ever come to this place. Maybe it’s a commentary on how older people are often targets of solicitation and fraud? I guess, but other than that there’s no real reason why only they seem to be attracted to this place.
But that’s all the deeper meaning bullshit that only film critics care about, right? Let’s talk about all the flashy stuff and the stomaching churning moments! Mainstream horror films nowadays are almost defined by their dismally low budgets when compared to other genres which is a shame considering how much can be done if the studios would just dole out a few more bucks. Hell, the last one I remember being well funded was Crimson Peak at fifty-five million, and even if you weren’t a fan of that movie you can’t deny how beautiful it looked. I wouldn’t say that this movie is BEAUTIFUL in that its aesthetic sensibilities lie more in drab sterility rather than Gothic excess, but Verbinski knows how to shoot a damn movie and there is some seriously creative cinematography on display along with quite a few brilliantly staged set pieces that give this such a unique and foreboding feel that’s rarely captured in modern horror films. While I wouldn’t quite say it’s as good as The Witch in terms of aesthetics and mood, it’s definitely in that ball park which is an impressive feat on its own and I’m very impressed that someone who’s been trapped in the studio system for so long can manage to delve this deep into such grotesque and alienating concepts that is sure to turn off a lot of potential movie goers. Adding to all this is solid acting from our lead characters with Dane DeHaan being the standout. I would only criticize the rest of the cast in that they’re clearly playing obvious horror types (the mad doctor, the wide eyed innocent, the one person who inexplicably knows everything about the place they’re at yet can’t put it together that they’re someplace dangerous, etc) but they’re all played very well. Okay, MAYBE Jason Isaacs is pushing it a bit too far, but I’m gonna put that more on the script than on his acting.
Speaking of the script, we might as well talk about where this movie falters, and it all leads back to that. The movie is way too long, the pacing is damn near incomprehensible, and all the buildup is for a relatively unsatisfying payoff. It feels like they took three different drafts of the same movie and couldn’t decide which one was the best so they tried to cram everything in and the result is a film that just doesn’t come together the way it should. At this point it’s an obnoxious cliché to have the snarky horror movie response of WHY DON’T THEY JUST GET OUT OF THE HOUSE, but the length to which the finds ways to keep Lockhart from B-lining it straight to the nearest airport would be impressive if it wasn’t so frustrating. There are half a dozen points in this movie where the plot should wrap itself up, yet it keeps on going and there’s frankly no real reason for it and it actively diminishes the impact of each successive revelation. Hell, there’s a revelation that I’m pretty sure they do TWICE in here, though it’s possible that the movie didn’t think I was smart enough to put two and two together in the earlier scene. Most of this occurs in the second half once Lockhart starts to piece together what is going on, and by the time we’ve gotten to the FINAL final twist (which admittedly is pretty shocking), I was just inured to it as they had already given a whole bunch of OTHER twists that clearly weren’t enough for the main character to leave or for the movie to come to an end. When we already had five Shyamalan twists before this one and it ended up not impacting the story in a significant way, why should we care about the sixth one?
On top of the overload of plot twists, the plot itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense once all the cards are on the table and several of the characters’ motivations that you’d hope would be explained by the end remain completely inexplicable. If someone could tell me why the workers at the Wellness Center didn’t just kill Lockhart or why Lockhart subjected himself to increasingly absurd treatments, I’d much appreciate it because it really shouldn’t take THIS long for at least ONE of them to stop playing along. There’s also stuff in here that even if they bothered to explain it (spoiler alert: They don’t) still wouldn’t make a bit of sense. We know what Dr. Volmer’s deal is, but who the hell are the regular staff that work in this place (the nurses and orderlies), and why are they doing this? Does the job REALLY pay that well or something!? What about the fact that Lockhart’s car JUST SO HAPPENED to crash as he was leaving the first time? Did Volmer know that was going to happen? If not, then he managed to set up a pretty elaborate scheme in a rather short period of time! The movie THINKS that it has ideas, but all it has is premises. It’s got the imagery, it’s got the basic set up, but it doesn’t have the WHY. WHY is this happening? How does it fit in with the bigger story? Those questions are raised throughout the movie which is good for building up suspense and drama, but most are never answered in a satisfying way which leads to a whole lot of frustration and disappointment once the movie finally lets us know what all this has been about.
It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a GREAT movie at several points. It’s just too bad that no one was around to tell Gore Verbinski to show a modicum of restraint and focus s that we’d have a much tighter experience rather than this excessive and undisciplined, yet undeniably beautiful, mess of a film. It’s still worth seeing though simply for its imagery and for the great moments that are peppered throughout. Is it worth seeing in a theater though? Eh… that’s a hard call. I don’t have a lot of patience for movies this long, especially ones that meander as much as this one does. You probably won’t miss out on much by waiting for the home release, but if you can handle the unbearable run time, it’ll probably worth seeing those messed up images on the big screen. Hey, at the very least it’s better than that Rings movie. Verbinski’s still got the crown on THAT franchise, baby!!
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