Visionary filmmaker Gore Verbinski makes his long-awaited return to the horror genre with eerie psychological thriller A Cure For Wellness, starring Mia Goth, Jason Isaacs and Dane DeHaan.
It's been 15 years since Verbinski last tackled horror in supernatural remake of the 1998 Japanese horror, The Ring. Since then, he's directed movies aimed at younger audiences such as Rango, The Lone Ranger and most notably, the first three instalments of the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. Here, he takes on much more grown-up fodder, which descends into even more bizarre and twisted depths than his 2002 scary movie about a killer VHS... Still has a focus on water though, go figure!
A Cure For Wellness centres on obnoxious Wall Street workaholic Lockhart (DeHaan), who is ordered to retrieve his superior from a reclusive retreat in the Swiss Alps so he can sign off on an important merger. There's a pretty big obstacle standing in his way though, and that's that Pembroke has no intention to leave, nor do the menacing doctors at the mysterious facility think he's ready to either.
Determined to get his man, Lockhart agrees to come back at a later date. But when a grisly, freak accident leaves him injured and in the care of unnerving director of the facility Dr Volmer (Jason Isaacs), Lockhart soon discovers that all is not "wonderful" at the seemingly idyllic wellness centre.
While supporting players Mia Goth and Isaacs are brilliant additions, A Cure For Wellness rests solely on DeHaan's shoulders and there's no denying his casting was downright perfect. Beyond his fitting aesthetics; ice-cold eyes, hair just a little-too-dark for his pale complexion and sinister smirk down-pat, he's given the most to do, as Lockhart is forced on a journey that takes him from jumped-up, business executive to a broken man and he carries the arc well.
Never quite the likeable hero, you're never sure whether he's the right guy to root for or whether you're secretly enjoying his suffering either. After all, he's at best, an ill-mannered jerk. Screenwriter Justin Haythe cleverly manipulates you to feel sympathy towards him though, as leg-in-plaster, he becomes much more vulnerable.
Anti-heroes aren't exactly new, mind you, and it's not the only thing this film nabs from previous outings. Ever notice how movies that depict an uncertain reality often have a green or blue tint? Think The Matrix, Fight Club or Shutter Island. A Cure For Wellness certainly abides by that tradition, by frequently using green-soaked sets and off-kilter shots. Verbinski re-teams with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, whom he previously worked with on The Ring, to provide photoshoot-esque imagery that will undoubtedly get under your skin. Seriously, you're never going to want to see a standalone bath again.
Despite it's stylistic similarities to other movies, in terms of story, A Cure For Wellness manages to keep you guessing throughout. But then again, that's only really due to its heavy use of smoke and mirrors. Thanks to its lengthy 146-minute running time, Verbinski has time to spare, running rings around his audience any chance he gets and often you'll find yourself growing weary of the red herrings; such as Lockhart's surprisingly unrelated backstory.
There's method in Verbinski's madness here though, as he attempts to present an allegorical exploration of the (obvious?) parallels between institutionalisation and the metaphorical shackles we willingly put ourselves in, be it in pursuit of a high-flying career or to merely keep up with the modern world. It's somewhat of a stretch, granted; if your boss is forcing down glasses of water down your gullet with live squirmies in it on the reg, you should probably hand in your notice. But A Cure For Wellness toys with that idea and niggling feeling that you're never the biggest fish in the pond, and it plays with its viewers in exactly the same way.
As with most psychological thrillers, there's a "big reveal" in the film's final act and if you're familiar with the genre, you're likely to have arrived at the conclusion long before it actually arrives. But there's something pretty admirable, and delightfully unusual, about A Cure For Wellness's pacing when it comes to dishing out the twists. As soon as you discover one thing, there's another aspect you start to become intrigued by...
Given how common it is in movies nowadays, it's refreshing how the film refuses to offer up any exposition too, meaning not one scene ever explicitly explains what's really been going on. You're never quite allowed that eureka moment, often leaving you as frustrated as Lockhart when it comes to seeking the truth. You given [pretty blatant] hints of course but be warned, you'll have to piece together the puzzle yourself with this one.
In reality though, you don't really need to know whether what you're seeing is actually happening or whether the strange goings-on at the sanitarium are all side effects of Lockhart's treatment. In retrospect, one could argue that the film's opening scenes are some of its more unsettling ones, with seemingly unconnected frames featuring eels and young women submerged underwater. One particular sequence will likely make you glad that you're sitting in a comfy cinema chair rather than an awkward boardroom, but is it mere coincidence or does it mean that where Lockhart began the film is the vision rather than all that happens afterwards. Interestingly, you're able to make up your own mind.
Sometimes overwrought yet unrelentingly absorbing, it's evident that A Cure For Wellness won't be everyone's cup of tea – or more appropriately, glass of water. It's not only bold in its visual style but in its story-telling too, combining old-age folktales, scenes of Gothic horror and more modernistic yet derivative plot devices. But if you're one of those people who allows yourself to check in wholeheartedly, it's likely that – much like Lockhart with the facility –you'll find it difficult to leave behind.