The visuals and acting of “A Cure for Wellness” may taste sweet, but the film falls flat with poor pacing and unanswered riddles.
The film follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a young, smarmy Wall Street executive sent to a wellness center in the Swiss Alps to retrieve Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), his company’s CEO. When Lockhart arrives at the seemingly idyllic spa and after he is given the runaround trying to find Pembroke, he begins to suspect that the wellness center and its treatments aren’t what they seem. Although Lockhart eventually persuades Pembroke to return to New York, a brutal car crash lands him back in the center with a broken leg.
Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs) suggests that he try some of the spa’s treatments while he recovers, and Lockhart agrees. But with the treatments come nightmares, visions and physical torture that leave Lockhart — and the audience — questioning reality. As Lockhart tries to investigate, he meets a mysterious girl named Hannah (Mia Goth), the only other young patient on the premises; she warns him that “no one ever leaves” the spa. In addition, according to local legend, the wellness center itself is built on land with a horrific past.
“A Cure for Wellness” is director Gore Verbinski’s return to the horror genre since “The Ring,” released nearly 15 years ago. Since then, Verbinski has focused on big budget popcorn flicks like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series and “The Lone Ranger.” After the poor critical and, in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” low box office returns, I was excited to see Verbinski return to horror. “The Ring” is a favorite of mine, and I hoped he could recapture that eerie, voyeuristic creepiness that he had previously nailed so well.
The creepiness is certainly there, with plenty of eerie and downright disturbing imagery, with a great emphasis placed on eels and water. The eels are clearly sensual symbols, bringing in plenty of psychological undertones to the story. Many scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch, and you may wish you’d never seen them because of their graphic execution. The film feels like a mixture of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and even the “Outlast” horror survival video game; much like those works, the plot will leave you thinking after the credits roll — a strength that seems absent from many recent films.
“A Cure for Wellness” is beautiful in its execution, with excellent use of location shooting and cinematography. Exterior scenes at the spa were shot at Hohenzollern Castle in Germany, and the interior shots made use of Beelitz Sanitorium, an abandoned Nazi hospital that is supposedly haunted — perfect for a creepy wellness center.
But all of the beautiful shots can’t disguise the story’s weaknesses. The plot revolves around the supposed cure for all of the world’s ailments, but while the story starts off strong, it devolves into utter nonsense. It’s as though the screenwriters tried to fill in the plot holes and slips of logic with so much atmospheric fluff that they hoped the audience wouldn’t notice. The poor pacing — with a rushed first act, dragging second act and genre-flipping, absurdist third act — makes the film’s two-hour and 26-minute run-time feel even longer. There are several points where the movie seems to be coming to a close, but then it just keeps going.
DeHaan, Isaacs and Goth give strong performances, but they suffer from a lack of material. DeHaan as the main character bears the brunt of this, acting well but ultimately failing to connect with the audience. The screenwriters attempt to build Lockhart’s character through childhood flashbacks, but the depth just isn’t there. It’s frustrating to see DeHaan’s talent so underserved.
“A Cure for Wellness” perfectly represents the cure it hopes to find. On the outside is the hopeful wish to fix the world’s ailments, but the inside is an empty, false promise. For the film, it may look beautiful, but the end results are unfortunately uninspired.