There are horror films, and then there’s 20th Century Fox’s A Cure For Wellness. Not in recent memory can I call a major studio releasing such a brazenly bonkers, gothic tale of excess that wasn’t already tied to some proven source material. Directed like a passion project, yet funded like a summer blockbuster, Gore Verbinksi is no doubt calling in his chips from the billions of dollars he has made studios over the years with his string of hits, from The Ring remake to the original Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, indulging carte blanche as if there are no inherent risks to a 150 minute horror epic starring a cast of virtual no-names, featuring a sinister, labyrinthine plot involving all manner of craziness that to even hint at would ruin the absolute, pure evening of surprises awaiting its audience. A Cure For Wellness is not only a must see cinematic event, it’s one of the best, and best directed mainstream horror films in years.
The plot, a challenge to distill into a single logline, involves a young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) sent by his firm to an idyllic sanitarium nestled in the Swiss Alps, a wealthy retreat where its residents are recovering from a strange ailment that can only be qualified by being “not well,” to retrieve the CEO Pembroke, whose treatment has inspired a crisis of conscience that could blow a multi-billion dollar business merger in the works. His charge appears simple enough, and it’s with smug privilege that he enters the hospital and demands to be taken to his colleague for a quick extraction, but stonewall after stonewall ultimately leads to a severe car accident, Lockhart breaking his leg, and forced to stay for a few nights, which becomes longer when the resident doctor and facility owner Volmer (Jason Issacs) decides that he also appears “not well.” What unfolds is a fiendish, unrelenting game of cat and mouse, where Lockhart, suddenly unable to locate Pembroke, goes along with his ailment while pursuing a clandestine investigation of the retreat, pushing further towards its dark heart, revealing layers upon layers of depravity, peeled back ever so slowly and deliberately, to a twist ending that has to be seen to be believed, but which nevertheless grows organically from what’s come before.
Technically, A Cure For Wellness is unparalleled among its peers. At such a length it is frequently exhausting how pristinely directed this film is, projecting a rigid adherence to formalism that might be Verbinski’s bid for masterhood. At 150 minutes, and featuring many scenes of Lockhart walking slowly down hallways, Verbinski surprisingly makes the time fly by, drenching each shot in anticipation of what’s to come, holding back and teasing narrative information, and replacing it with astute camera placement and movement, teasing subtle reveals by exercising a clear visual strategy for each scene. Verbinski orchestrates a motif around reflections as establishing shots, and looking through various objects, from simple mirrors and the eyes of stuffed and mounted deer heads, to the exaggerated funhouse effect of peering through glassware drained of strange water by thirsty patients, A Cure For Wellness is non-stop visual stimulus from someone accustomed to staging elaborate action sequences. The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli, notable a quarter of a century ago for beautifully lensing Kalifornia and Boxing Helena, and more recently The Lone Ranger and Pete’s Dragon, is impeccable, and will more than once leave you breathless, as with the best shot in the film, which looks out over the Alps, its two characters perfectly framed in the middle, while a reflecting pool echoes not only the top half of the screen, but Verbinski’s motif as well. The special effects are simply the best that money can buy. And the score, by up-and-coming sensation Benjamin Wallfisch, incorporates immediately hummable themes that are actually woven throughout the film, appearing in subtle variations and creating a soundtrack steeped in the classical tradition of matching cues to certain characters and plot points. No expense was spared in the making of this film, and it shows in every frame, but it’s a glorious excess that is not only welcomed, but mandatory for bringing such a story to screen.
Already branded on opening weekend with a “love it or hate it” designation, any criticisms levied at A Cure For Wellness simply do not hold up in light of such a powerful, dizzying display of technical proficiency and off the charts level of gonzo fun. This is a film that loves movies, and while its influences are easy to spot, it is far from a pale imitation, or sum total of other artists’ work. Verbinski brings his film to life in a thrilling way that recalls the best work of Steven Spielberg or M. Night Shyamalan. Dane DeHaan commands attention, even though practically unheard of, yet present in nearly every frame, and proves that big name stars are not required to carry a huge studio film like this. I go to the movies to be consistently surprised, and to see things I’ve never seen before handled in uniquely visual and intriguing ways. A Cure For Wellness more than rises to this challenge. 2017 will be hard-pressed to release a better major studio horror film and it’s only February. A Cure For Wellness is a cure for the winter blues in the theatre, a calling card of a studio director working at the top of his game, and a wild ride that will make your head spin and your mind reel. Go see this before it disappears; it takes far too many chances to be a hit, but that only further supports its stature as lightning in a bottle, that every so often, inexplicably leaks out of Hollywood, and we are all the better for it.
The Verdict: Rave