A Cure for Wellness. 2017. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Screenplay by Justin Haythe.
Starring Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth, Jason Isaacs, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Magnus Krepper, & Harry Groener.
Regency Enterprises/New Regency Productions/Blind Wink Productions/Studio Babelsberg/TSG Entertainment
Rated R. 146 minutes.
I’m sort of a half-in, half-out-type when it comes to Gore Verbinski. He’s not a bad filmmaker. In fact, he is pretty damn solid. When it comes to horror he did a fantastic job with 2001’s American remake of The Ring, which I personally found more unsettling than the original Ringu.
16 years later, he returns with A Cure for Wellness.
Part of what pisses me off has nothing to do with Verbinski, nor with the Gothic and fun screenplay from Justin Haythe that falls apart in the last quarter. It’s that people seem intent on labelling anything featuring slithery creatures as inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. When people do that I often wonder, have you ever read anything by him? I saw articles leading up to the film, and after, describing this as some sort of Lovecraftian-leaning story.
It is not. Whatsoever. If anything it’s further back into the Gothic literary tradition, closer to a tale you might discover in a lost Edgar Allan Poe tome, or a Robert Chambers short story. The screenplay is fantastic in certain parts; others, it lacks the coherency needed to carry the large scale of its plot. Building up the horror and the dreadful atmosphere, in part due to incredibly chosen locations at which to film, Verbinski sets us up for a finale that never comes. And the one that does left me way past cold.
Immediately I didn’t like the first scene before the title. Not because it wasn’t well filmed or well-acted; the latter not at all, the actor was excellent for his brief few minutes on screen. The scene obviously connects to the rest of the plot. However, my problem is that screenwriter Justin Haythe could’ve given us a better, creepier, more connective section of tissue for the film to feed off organically. There’s like a stutter step as Verbinski gets going. A darkness lies over the opener. Might have served the atmosphere better if there was a scene involving Pembroke (Harry Groener), shrouded in mystery. Because I love how we’re slowly introduced to the spa where Pembroke’s ran off and become nearly a different man. That works like a charm. Personally, the first scene doesn’t do any service to the film, and it’s just a cog amongst the rest of the works with no shine.
One of the earliest redeeming qualities after this lacklustre start is the cinematography, as DP Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, King of New York) captures the city as a dark and gloomy, moody space, versus the mountain setting of the German locations, specifically Castle Hohenzollern standing in for the spooky spa. Even as Dane DeHaan’s character rides a sleek modern train up into the Alps, Bazelli manages to draw the eye in an unsuspecting way.
But most of all, DeHaan and Mia Goth each make the film’s characters work; Isaacs is pretty good on the whole, though early on his accent flutters a few times before smoothing out. DeHaan does a massive load of heavy lifting, providing us a perspective into the plot’s events that drags into a psychologically scary place. He never misses a damn beat, a fine actor of his generation. On the other side is Goth, whose look alone gives her character an unsettling air. She acts the part perfectly, keeping us in the dark while the writing unfolds further and further into terror. There’s a spectacular scene in a Swiss mountain pub where her character does a dance in front of the locals, and the way she falls into it you can see her determination as an actress.
Disclaimer: Beyond this point are big time spoilers for the plot. Proceed at your own risk.
Perhaps my biggest beef ultimately is that A Cure for Wellness never does enough with its build up and the atmosphere, settling for a conclusion which negates much of the solid work Verbinski and his crew and the actors accomplish. For instance, there are things Lockhart (DeHaan) discovers in the spa’s underbelly I would’ve liked to see explained. Not that any of it was supremely mind boggling after the film was over. There are a couple scenes and pieces of imagery I felt were used simply for the fact Verbinski thought they’d look cool. Such as the tanks holding the people, though they’re not actually dead. You could say it’s all for hydrating, whatever, but between the tanks, then the iron lung-style contraptions people are put in, corpses being dumped into the water supply where they’re eaten by eels… complete overkill.
There’s a repetition problem. Plain and simple. Aside from this, there are plotholes concerning Dr. Volmer (Isaacs) and Hannah (Goth) I don’t fully understand. And you don’t need to worry: I can suspend disbelief with the best of them. At a point, there’s only so far I can stretch. What doesn’t make sense to me is Hannah, especially. Considering the original fire in the castle where the spa stands was 200 years prior, we’ve got Volmer whose face is all nasty under the human skin he wears, then just from being tossed into the water on the mountain Hannah, only a fetus at the time, lasts as a young girl for two centuries? I can’t make rational sense of certain aspects, which is why I feel like Haythe’s screenplay went too ambitious. The Lovecraftian nonsense I hear brought up by people who don’t read enough Lovecraft COULD HAVE been stellar, if Haythe used that influence and tweaked the whole purpose of the mountain spa. I felt the story was headed somewhere entirely different. Maybe I’m just whining because I wanted something specific instead of what I received.
Up to the last quarter of the film there’s an atmosphere of dread, the mood is suspenseful and smothered with tension. Psychological horror plagues the viewer, not knowing whether Lockhart is ripping a hole in the mysterious practices of Dr. Volmer and his weird spa, or if he’s actually going totally insane. And that works, so well.
Until the final quarter rolls and the finale crumbles. A Cure for Wellness has plenty of Gothic qualities to make it compelling. With a 146-minute runtime I can’t help feel that Haythe’s screenplay drags on a half hour too long, leaving Verbinski to struggle with expanding scenes and concepts to the point of boredom. I love long films, only if they’re suited to their length (see: Scorsese). This one doesn’t have the heart to carry on past two hours.
I recommend seeing this Verbinski flick, absolutely. Just don’t expect exactly what the trailer pitches, which is a solid rule for all movies. Also, be prepared for the story’s reach to exceed its grasp. Truly wanted to love this. Came out feeling lukewarm. Definitely well made, if only the writing measured up to the cinematography, the score, and the immense talent of its two leads.