Stars: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie, Ivo Nandi, Adrian Schiller, Harry Groener | Written by Justin Haythe | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a cocky young executive working for a New York financial services firm. The board summons him and explains that there are unsavoury business shenanigans afoot. The source is an ex-board member, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who recently went AWOL at a “wellness” retreat in the Swiss Alps. Lockhart is tasked with going there and bringing Pembroke home, so the board can pin the illegal activity on him.
But when Lockhart reaches the retreat, he struggles to find answers – or, indeed, Pembroke. He tries to depart, but a car accident leaves him with a broken leg. He’s stuck in the old castle, with its secret history, its “vitamin”-quaffing patients, and its menacing overlord, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Lockhart meets Hannah (Mia Goth), a traumatised teenager who is different to the others: younger and arguably saner, and she may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the place, and the centuries-old legend of the baron who built it.
Gore Verbinski, known most widely for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, was famously close to directing a BioShock video game adaptation. And the residue of that project is all over A Cure for Wellness: the wealthy citizens of an idealised commune, escaping the “sickness” of the outer world; superpowered “vitamins” extracted from sea life; a “special” young girl who holds the key to genetic perfection; not to mention the overarching themes of water and purity. What a film that might have been, and what a film this isn’t. As someone pathologically slow at unravelling secrets, I found I’d figured this one out in minutes – and then the film proceeds to very slowly inform us of what we already know. It’s like a heavily fairy-taled Shutter Island, minus the last act info-dump but also minus the intriguing plot.
DeHaan even resembles a younger Leonardo DiCaprio. But while he’s a capable actor, there’s an unshakeable serenity about DeHaan which means he never really sells us a cracked mind. The unhinged wildness in DiCaprio makes him more convincing in a very similar role. Isaacs fares better, bringing a truly sinister and entirely appropriate calm to a role that could have taken the roof off. Through these characters’ conflict the film does at least nod toward higher themes of science versus religion. We are first introduced to Lockhart as he hammers numbers into a spreadsheet: the stockbroker as the scientist of the capitalist machine. Then we meet Volmer, who takes pseudo-science to a scary new level – one where its disciples are asked to believe in the “cure” solely on the basis of faith.
Technically the film is handsome, and clearly a singular vision. Dodgy CGI aside, the cinematography is sweeping and cinematic, and Verbinski has a sense of how to maximise the production design with his careful framing. The narrow aspect ratio makes us feel an overwhelming containment. Lifting from the best, the walls are daubed in queasy green paint, poisoning us with a sense of unease, just like in The Shining. Except Kubrick delivered in spades, and Verbinski delivers nothing much. The early promise of dream-like ambiguity – for example, where Lockhart is lost in a steamy, ever-changing maze – is dispensed in favour of crashing setpiece moments we feel like we’ve seen before, whether it’s adults sleeping foetus-like in tubes or deformed genetic experiments. Verbinski builds brilliantly, but too often it’s without a satisfactory payoff.
Frustratingly, Lockhart is unlocking a mystery but he ignores easy shortcuts to the truth, as if he’s playing along with movie pacing. There are times when we are crying out for him to simply follow the suspicious guy shuttling the bodies to the basement. But instead it’s treated as another waypoint in the journey toward a grand revelation which will never come, because we nailed it an hour ago.
The scares are mild, limited to icky things wriggling, and stuff shuffling when it shouldn’t. For all the gorgeous, thoughtfully-framed photography, there’s nothing indelible to etch itself upon the mind; nothing to tap into our primal fears.
A Cure for Wellness is a crushing disappointment because it has all the hallmarks of an enjoyable and hokey thriller. In the end it’s too slow and too predictable to be either. For all its aesthetic craft, its mystery is rote and its secrets uninteresting, leaving its gothic magnificence empty, haunted only by what might have been.
A Cure for Wellness is in cinemas across the UK now.