A Cure for Wellness: “You Like Puzzles?”

a cure for wellness

A Cure for Wellness
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Opens February 17

There are a lot of horror movies released these days, a shocking percentage of them from the Blumhouse production company. But with even a meticulous filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan taking a stripped-down Blum-produced approach, it’s relatively rare to see a studio movie summon lavish, big-budget dread the way A Cure for Wellness does. The movie opens with a death that might well be perfectly natural, as these things go—it looks like a heart attack, and there aren’t any scraggly-haired ghosts or apparent demonic possessions lurking in the shadows. But in an empty high-tech office after hours, computer monitors ablaze with financial reports, water leaking out of a spilled cooler, the expiration looks downright sinister.

It’s also drawn out and doesn’t have a ton to do with the rest of the movie. Thematically, it makes sense to open a story about a company man called Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) sent to a remote town in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his CEO from a mysterious spa with a scene of another company man seeming to work himself to death. But like a lot of the movie, what seems vitally compelling in the moment isn’t strictly necessary in the totality of a 150-minute horror picture. Which is not to say it’s entirely unwelcome; muchness is part of this movie’s aesthetic.

That aesthetic is also saturated with movie-ness and a thick sheen of music-video artificiality, though mostly, again, in a good way. The spa that Lockhart visits, heavy on the pale greens and sickly whites, looks like a cross between the basement of the Grand Budapest Hotel and the hospital from Shutter Island. If the latter wasn’t a specific inspiration for director Gore Verbinski, he at least leaned into the resemblances: DeHaan looks like a runtier DiCaprio, especially when dressed up in a suit, and the dialogue is similarly freighted with loaded questions like “You like puzzles?” (perhaps less evocative than the already-portentous Shutter Island pronouncement: “You’re a rat in a maze”). There’s even a shot of DeHaan (seen chain-chewing nicotine gum early on) lighting a cigarette that recalls a similar bit of match-lit imagery in the Scorsese picture.

Despite all that, Scorsese isn’t one of Verbinski’s main reference points; there’s more Spielberg and Terry Gilliam both to his work in general and to this specific madhouse. As Lockhart is waylaid at the spa, where the director (Jason Isaacs) speaks vaguely of releasing toxins and drinking plenty of water, Verbinski’s camera circles and pushes through hallways and composes half-underwater shots that distort the characters’ desperate bodies. For much of its running time, the movie simmers just a few degrees below feverish. Lockhart, nursing a broken limb and often accompanied by the rhythmic creak of his crutches, is skeptical about his surroundings from the start. But it takes him a while to boil over, and the movie doesn’t do much work explaining why or how he would agree, however temporarily, to the doctors’ treatments. He also meets Hannah (Mia Goth, so well-named that I’m not 100% convinced she’s a real person), a childlike patient who doesn’t know much about the outside world, and encounters resistance whenever he tries to sort out just what goes on during these extended stays at the spa—and what makes his CEO so indifferent to the idea that he might, at some point, leave this place.

Part of the fun of A Cure for Wellness is the way the hospital’s backstory keeps mutating and slithering out of grasp as Lockhart slowly mounts his amateur investigation. That is to say that, as with the movie’s muchness, its drawn-out pace has its pleasures to match the structural unwieldiness. But like Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies and his underrated nonstarter The Lone Ranger, some of the sprawl is also vaguely unaccountable, festooned with unnecessary curlicues on the plot. Verbinski is one of the most versatile and stylish big-ticket filmmakers to make that music video-to-Hollywood leap, never bothering with indie-maverick mode and yet still making strange movies for children and families (Mousehunt and Rango), hard-to-classify dramedies (The Weather Man; The Mexican), horror (The Ring), and fantasy adventures (Pirates and Ranger). He’s an expert technician, but the longer his movies get, the more they feel like closed systems, losing some of their humanity in the elaborateness of the production. In Wellness, Lockhart feels like the subject of a parable rather than a living, breathing human. Even his hapless-victim mode (as with his rough stay in a dentist’s chair) doesn’t have the dark-comic tartness of an After Hours or even the gruesome slapstick passages of Minority Report.

Verbinski movies do usually deliver the goods, at least, in a way a lot of big-budget grist never does. A Cure for Wellness is audacious and largely entertaining, especially when it goes full-on gothic in its final stretch. It also crystallizes Verbinski’s limitations as a filmmaker. If he’s a visionary, as the trailers claim, he’s a rootless, restless one.