Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Gore Verbinski
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie, Ivo Nandi, Harry Groener, Adrian Schiller, Ashok Mandanna, Magnus Krenner.
Visionary filmmaker Gore Verbinski has a wonderfully diverse filmography that includes the very funny slapstick nonsense of Mousehunt, the first three film in the successful Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise that was based on a Disneyland ride, the animated spaghetti western Rango, the drama The Weatherman with Nicolas Cage, the Americanised version of the Japanese horror film Ring, and the recent The Lone Ranger. Many of his films have featured great special effects, but many have also tended to be a bit bloated. His latest film is A Cure For Wellness, which is, arguably, the riskiest project of his career so far and one of his least commercial and conventional. A Cure For Wellness is a modern mix of the macabre grand guignol horror film and Cronenberg-like body horror.
Lockhart (played by Dane DeHaan, from The Place Beyond The Pines, Spiderman, etc) is an ambitious young Wall Street stockbroker who long ago traded in his ethics and principles for success and riches. Now his firm is in trouble with the regulators. Lockhart is sent to Switzerland to fetch Richard Penbroke, one of the company’s founders, back from a luxury spa that caters to wealthy clients. The clinic is situated on top of a mountain, and resembles an imposing fortress. It is run by the suave Dr Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Penbroke, like the rest of the patients at the clinic, is reluctant to leave, seemingly happy with the treatment they receive. Lockhart suspects that there is something wrong at the clinic and that the treatments are actually making the patients sicker.
When a car crash and a broken leg extends his stay at the clinic, Lockhart begins to explore the clinic’s labyrinthine corridors and passageways and subterranean rooms. He also meets the mysterious and troubled Hannah (Mia Goth, from Nymphomaniac, etc), who is a “special project” for Volmer and who may well hold the key to the clinic’s dark secrets. He also befriends some of the inpatients, including the elderly and eccentric Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie), who is a little distracted by her fascination with the history of the clinic and Volmer. Two hundred years ago, the local townsfolk burned the castle to the ground, and there is still tension between the townsfolk and the clinic. At one stage Lockhart and Hannah briefly leave the clinic grounds and venture into the nearby village, which turns out to be a fairly hostile and sinister place as well.
But is Lockhart paranoid, delusional, going slowly insane, or are his concerns about the sanatorium justified?
A Cure For Wellness has been written by Justin Haythe, who also collaborated with Verbinksi on The Lone Ranger. He has created a rather uneasy and chilling psychological thriller and he develops an unsettling mood and he preys on our innate fear of the unknown. The film also explores our obsessions with health, greed and power.
Verbinksi develops an air of foreboding through the use of unsettling imagery and some stomach churning set pieces. There are several nightmarish scenes involving slithering eels and a laboratory full of old jars containing an assortment of oddities and the bizarre results of failed experiments. The film reminds audiences of Scorsese’s Shutter Island as well as other nightmarish films such as The Wicker Man and Kubrick’s The Shining, although not quite as intriguing or as compelling. It also owes a debt to Thomas Mann’s 1926 novel The Magic Mountain. But the script becomes unnecessarily convoluted, and by the end seems to lose the plot altogether and both Haythe and Verbinski go for broke with a bonkers finale which is quite silly, and throws in cult worship, incest and bloody mayhem.
There is some impressive production design here. The film was largely shot in a former sanatorium and an abandoned hospital complex that housed wounded soldiers in WWI, which was restored by the production crew. The sound design team have incorporated creaks and rumblings to add to the atmosphere. The film is very creepy and has been shot in stylish and atmospheric fashion Verbinksi’s regular cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Early scenes set in the corporate world are shot mainly in a cold grey palette, which contrasts with the brighter colours of the beautiful Swiss Alps. Bazelli also creates a nice juxtaposition between the natural beauty of the mountain top setting and the growing sense of evil within the walls of the clinic. The score from Benjamin Wallfisch (Lights Out, etc) also adds to the mood.
This is a fairly tough and physically demanding role for DeHaan, who looks like a slightly disfigured version of the young Leonardo Di Caprio, as he undergoes a variety of torturous treatments, including a submersion tank and some brutal dentistry. He also effortlessly conveys Lockhart’s growing sense of unease and determination. For his part, Isaacs brings a vaguely menacing quality to his charismatic and suave Volmer in the early stages of the film, but he goes well over the top by the crazy climax. Goth brings a vulnerability to her portrayal of the troubled Hannah. And like French filmmakers Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, etc) Verbinski has deliberately cast the film with actors with unusual features to further heighten the unusual atmosphere.
There is plenty of weirdness at work in A Cure For Wellness that will intrigue audiences for most of its running time. This ultimately a triumph of visual style over substance, and at an overly generous 146 minutes the film may well exhaust the patience and good will of many.