Gore Verbinski never makes films that are unappealing to look at, but he’s a filmmaker who often succumbs to misplaced ambition, resulting in some good and some disastrous works. A Cure For Wellness, which boasts a trailer that bills it as the incredibly symmetrical and beautiful sibling of Shutter Island, follows suit. It’s a mixed bag of the most frustrating kind: a film that would otherwise be perfectly fine if it hadn’t become the bloated and grossly misguided mess it did over the span of two and a half hours.
A Cure for Wellness is a pastiche of films you’ve seen before blended with some new ideas and a gorgeous aesthetic. The pairing of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and Verbinski works its usual wonders. While some imagery may feel familiar to anyone who’s seen The Ring once or twice, there’s a real beauty to the atmosphere and the design of the wellness center at which the bulk of the film takes place. With only blues, greens, and sometimes reds, popping against the white that populates the film, it’s hard to look away at any point, even when its narrative goes to shit.
And, for a film that presents itself as a rather silly and innocuous “maybe he’s been crazy all along” story about a guy in what amounts to an asylum, Justin Haythe’s script isn’t nearly interested enough in that aspect of it. The problem? That aspect is its best feature. Dane DeHaan’s young executive, traumatized by the suicide of his father at a young age, is the perfect conduit for a film about a shitty dude going crazy. Pairing him alongside the deliciously self-aware Jason Isaacs as the doctor with an agenda other than healing people works gangbusters. Their presence, individually and apart, is always welcome, though the latter’s irresistible performance is betrayed by a third act visual effects abomination.
Haythe bails on this narrative consistently to present these exciting alternate options: a straight horror film featuring body horror, dead bodies, and lots of eels; a character study of DeHaan’s executive and how his trauma impacts him today; and an aggressively rapey movie with incestuous plotting that has little to no interest in Mia Goth’s strange young woman outside of her sexual maturity and lack thereof. When Verbinski and Haythe play with the first of these three, the film actually works, because “mindfucks” (a loathsome but appropriate word) and sci-fi tinged horror are complementary. It’s not impossible to instill a character study with depth into a film that is otherwise the same level of trashy as American Horror Story, but Haythe is not the person to do that. He is unequipped with the level of self-assuredness and awareness that Ryan Murphy (another individual prone to bloat and rape-for-shock plots) has showcased in the past.
Above all else, once all of its lazy reveals have been offered to the audience in its last act, A Cure for Wellness is a hot mess. Discomfort is good in horror; using incest, rape, a woman’s period, and mountains of phallic imagery for shock with no substance is not. For a film that is surprisingly unashamed of nudity and occasionally in on the joke of how stupid genre movies set in asylums can be, Verbinski’s obsession with penetration feels like that of a frat bro who, when asked what his greatest fear is, would respond, “Getting fucked by another dude.” There’s a good movie in here somewhere, but as it stands, A Cure for Wellness doesn’t feel like much more than a waste of time.
Directed by Gore Verbinski; written by Justin Haythe; starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth; 146 minutes.
A Cure for Wellness opens everywhere on February 17th.