Gore Verbinski has always been a peculiar director. I’ve been a fan of his ever since he did remarkable work adapting the Japanese film Ringu into The Ring (a series that has not fared well in his absence), but choices in Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger left much to be desired. His films tend to drown in excess. He’s seen it fit to include more than necessary into his later works, and unfortunately, that’s the case with A Cure for Wellness.
A Cure for Wellness is visually captivating, yet pale. It’s grim and morose, yet blindly optimistic. It’s at times creepy, yet utterly goofy. It’s a cure, yet afflicted with disease.
A Cure for Wellness
Director: Gore Verbinski
Release Date: February 17, 2017
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a young, successful businessman who’s tasked by his company to retrieve an executive who’s vacationed to a wellness center in the Swiss Alps. But when he shows up to the center, a castle on top of a hill, and meets the mysterious Hannah (Mia Goth) and Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) he discovers something’s a miss in the Swiss. Especially when he’s forcibly admitted to the asylum. A Cure for Wellness tests the limits of environmental characterization. It’s almost as if it’s a thesis statement positing how much a film’s setting can balance out faults in its characters as long as its engagingly built. Wellness puts the bulk of its work behind building its central asylum, and thus every human character therein is overwhelmingly unlikable as a result. Lockhart’s especially troublesome from the second he shows up on screen. While this is clearly an intentional choice, there’s very little to invest in when you care so little about Lockhart’s well being.
Lockhart’s put through the ringer, but the film never quite reaches a place where we care about anything happening to him. As he falls victim to various levels of body disfigurement and gross out torture, it becomes more about enjoying the visceral nature of its imagery rather than further the tension of Lockhart’s situation. To slightly remedy this, Mia Goth’s Hannah is this childlike sprite of a character who seems out of time and place. Every member of this asylum is an wealthy elderly individual leaving their life behind, but Hannah doesn’t seem to have a life of her own. When Lockhart’s goal transitions from escape to rescuing Hannah, there’s a slight shift in his character but he’s still very much irredeemable. Thankfully, Goth portrays the right sense of naivete but Hannah’s characterization is all in the performance as the film gives her very little to work with.
The flat characters are only a reflection of the film’s setting. But while the drab colors and muted tones do not do them any favors, it works wonderfully for the asylum. Verbinski, most likely culminating a career’s worth of visual trickery, absolutely nails a creepy vibe. Stark whites (both in the asylum’s outfits and staff) juxtaposed with slimy greens coupled with an overall sepia-toned frame to lock the asylum in a past time. Wellness also surprises with a couple of well composed shots (one of which can be sort of seen in the image below) that provide a welcome breather from the asylum’s dank nature. This dankness elevates Verbinkski’s eventual gross out, masturbatory thrills and truly reaches a point where it can get under your skin. It just never does. Despite this well crafted world, the narrative falls as flat as the characters. Wellness asks for a hefty amount of investment and forgiveness in order to truly enjoy it.
Due to the magical realism of the setting (where slightly mystical themes and subjects coexist with the modern world), and Lockhart’s constantly medicated physiology, Wellness essentially follows an unreliable narrator. But this great idea is stifled by a core mystery that’s solvable within the first quarter of the film. Which means, you’re left with characters making dumb decisions and have overall less sense plodding through the film’s run time. It’s Verbinkski’s recent editing folly that also gives way to six different climaxes. There was a scene about two hours in that would’ve been a perfect end, but then it just kept going. That’s only one example of this too. There are several sequences that feel entirely unnecessary as they neither build character or flesh out the ickiness of the surroundings. Speaking of icky, the actual ending of the film crosses from cool gross out horror into sexual assault and reaches ‘B’ movie levels of cheese. It’s an unfortunate break in tone from the film’s build up, and weird to have it both played straight and ridiculed concurrently. It’s kind of a kick in the teeth for those who might’ve enjoyed the rest of the film.
A Cure for Wellness is a “glass half full or glass half empty” situation. It all depends on your perspective of its waters. Half full of good ideas, but half is brought down by poor execution of those ideas. A film I’d slightly recommend as a cautionary tale for film school students or as some goofy entertainment you’d drink through the first half but pass out before the end.
Unfortunately, A Cure for Wellness isn’t even a cure for boredom.