A Cure for Wellness is a visually-stunning work, but the abundance of style adds up to an overall hollow experience that fails to connect.
After receiving a promotion at a high-profile Wall Street firm, young financial broker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is tasked by the company’s board to retrieve CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) so a lucrative merger deal can be arranged. Two weeks ago, Pembroke took a vacation to a sanatarium in Switzerland and has become disillusioned with his professional life in New York, writing a mysterious and crazy letter to his colleagues about how the institution has enlightened him about what’s most important in life. Pembroke has no intention of returning to the States, but if he does not sign off on the agreement, his company will fall into chaos. Lockhart travels to Switzerland and plans on getting Pembroke on a red eye flight the same night.
Unfortunately for Lockhart, his stay at the sanatarium is elongated when he is in an automobile accident and breaks his leg. Lockhart finds himself a patient at the center, under the care of facility director Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), where he is to stay until he has recovered. As Lockhart heals and waits to see Pembroke to discuss business matters, he begins to learn more about the institution and its horrifying secrets, sending him on a quest to learn the full truth.
Following his helming of three Pirates of the Caribbean installments and Disney’s big-budget Lone Ranger reboot, A Cure for Wellness is director Gore Verbinski’s return to the horror/thriller genre. The hope going in was that it could be a creepy and moody story, a la the original Ring film, but the film ultimately comes up short of its goals. A Cure for Wellness is a visually-stunning work, but the abundance of style adds up to an overall hollow experience that fails to connect.
The biggest issue with the movie is the script, credited to Justin Haythe (Verbinski also receives story credit), which does not craft an engaging narrative to keep viewers invested. Cure for Wellness does toy with some fascinating ideas and concepts, such as a satire of modern, 21st century life, but few of them are fully formed to maximum effect. Additionally, the mystery element where Lockhart investigates what Volmer is really up to follows a rather predictable trajectory without throwing in any unexpected curveballs. On a superficial level, this throughline is enough to carry the film, but savvy viewers will be able to tell where things are headed, sapping Cure for Wellness of its potential impact. Pacing is also a key problem with the film, as it meanders along a nearly 2.5-hour runtime and truly feels its length. If the screenplay was trimmed down and streamlined, things may have turned out for the better.
Characterization is a mixed bag, with the most egregious misfire being DeHaan’s Lockhart. The actor is well-cast as a smarmy, “important” Wall Street type, but the role itself is thinly written. While DeHaan does a suitable job as the lead, he’s more of a storytelling device to react to all the happenings at the sanatarium, rather than a fleshed-out individual. Haythe attempts to add layers to Lockhart via flashbacks detailing a troubled youth, but these are far too fleeting and inconsequential to matter in the long run. On the flip side, Isaacs is good as Volmer, finding the right balance the part requires with charisma and screen presence. The doctor is a familiar trope in this kind of production, but Isaacs makes the most of what he has to work with. The third member of the main trio is Mia Goth, who plays a young patient at the institution named Hannah. Like Lockhart, there isn’t much to the role, but Goth is able to convincingly convey Hannah’s feelings and is perhaps the film’s most sympathetic figure. That said, her burgeoning friendship with Lockhart doesn’t have the effect Verbinski intended.
A Cure for Wellness sports an intricate and exquisite visual style that’s certainly eye-catching. Production designer Eve Stewart and director of photography Bojan Bazelli excel at crafting the world of the sanatarium. The film is full of interesting imagery that succeeds at being unsettling or pleasant when the story calls for it. Many of the exterior scenes are shot in broad daylight, illustrating the sanatarium’s utopia-esque setting, while other levels of the building are filmed like locations straight out of a horror film to put the viewer on edge. While the film is very nice to look at (and might inspire sleepless nights for those petrified of eels), that element doesn’t make up for the shortcomings in the plot, and most moviegoers will feel bored watching it all unfold.
The overarching hurdle the film faces is that it is too cold and emotionally distant to truly resonate. Some of this is by design, of course, since A Cure for Wellness is meant to make people uneasy and uncomfortable. However, the audience is never hooked due to poor set-up. The first act is rushed so Lockhart can get to the institution, and it’s difficult to really care about the character motivations during this section of the film. Cure for Wellness gets points for trying to be ambitious, but there ultimately isn’t much to the story at hand and it simply goes through the motions as opposed to delivering a unique take on its genre.
In the end, A Cure for Wellness is fascinating on the surface, but it unfortunately has little depth to recommend to all. Fans of Verbinski’s filmography will probably be curious to see what he has up his sleeve, but casual audiences shouldn’t be in any rush to check it out. Despite some neat ideas and breath-taking scenery, the movie is relatively empty thanks to a weak script and will leave some wanting a more fulfilling experience.
A Cure for Wellness is now playing in theaters. It runs 146 minutes and is rated R for violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language.
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