So I guess I saw A Cure for Wellness, because clearly, I am not well.
DIRECTOR: Gore Verbinski
PRODUCERS: Amon Milchan, Gore Verbinski, David Crockett
WRITERS: Justin Haythe (story + screenplay), Gore Verbinksi (screenplay)
INITIAL RELEASE: February 17, 2017
RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes
STARRING: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth
So I don’t typically go in for horror movies for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I have the intestinal fortitude of a frightened baby deer. But, in spite of that, I do have something of a penchant for stuff that is sufficiently weird, creepy, or just out and out unsettling; especially if it has the promise of people slowly losing their minds. And guess how many of those boxes A Cure for Wellness ticked?
Enough. It ticked it enough of those boxes.
Well, I’ll say this much of A Cure for Wellness: I didn’t hate it. Hell, I might have even liked it. It was one of those kinds of films where you walk out not really sure what you actually saw. In all it trailers and promo material, A Cure for Wellness promised an experience that was profoundly bizarre and unsettling, and it certainly delivered on that front. It offers up some truly bizarre, disturbing, and otherwise grotesque scenes and moments that stick in your brain long after the film is over. Whether any of this perverse imagery is actually in service of something I’ll get to later, but taken on its own it certainly made for curiously entertaining viewing.
And for as gross and unsettling as the subject matter may be, A Cure for Wellness is actually a tremendously pretty film. Verbinksi’s direction and cinematography seems to show a real eye for impressive visuals, and the film is loaded with shots and sequences that are all at once beautiful, haunting, and more than a little surreal. There are parts that don’t even feel like reality, and much closer to a strange, twisted fairy tale. Coupled with a score that surprised me and hits appropriately creepy notes, A Cure for Wellness becomes a remarkably gripping experience, at least as far as its aesthetic values go.
Editing-wise, A Cure for Wellness also proved itself to be more than efficient at drumming up a chilling and creepy atmosphere. While it takes a little bit of time to really find its footing (including an intro that doesn’t even feel connected to anything that happens thereafter), A Cure for Wellness really hits its stride and strikes a great an consistent pacing and slow building of unsettling tension. There was some small CGI use that was a little distracting- not in that it was unnecessary but more than it just didn’t end up looking very good relative to the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, aesthetics and well-crafted atmosphere and tension alone do not for a great movie make, and the film proves to not really have as much going on under its surface as it may initially appear. A Cure for Wellness is what I would refer to as an “empty movie”, in that its story and overall thematic context doesn’t really seem to have much to say about anything. Yes, the movie plays at ideas relating to human nature and the dangers of human greed and ambition and so forth, but none of this really seems to be articulated very clearly in the way things play out. By the time the film was over, I was left not really knowing what I was supposed to take away from it. A Cure for Wellness really comes off as something Verbinski wanted to make just for the sake of some creepy, unsettling visuals more than any kind of narrative inspiration. Also, its probably worth pointing out that, as horror settings go, you don’t exactly get too much more tread-and-re-tread than “creep mental asylum on a mountain”. Of course, it’s a creepy setting, but its not exactly new territory for the genre, is it?
And that’s not even really going into the plot of the film itself, which had problems in its own right. While it’s structured well enough, it follows entirely too many familiar beats, and perhaps most damningly, was fairly predictable. It has many shades of Scorseses’s Shutter Island, but whereas that flick had a truly killer twist, A Cure for Wellness tries for this and fails by too heavily telegraphing its plot movements ahead of time. These problems were mitigated somewhat by just how wonderfully bizarre the whole thing turns out to be; it almost feels like some kind of long-lost Goosebumps book. But unfortunately, much like most Goosebumps books, it doesn’t really have any staying power: it’s just kind of this creepy, slightly absurd plot, and then it’s done.
It also doesn’t help that A Cure for Wellness doesn’t really have any particularly strong or interesting characters. Basically all of them are either flat or fairly clichéd characters that are rather typical of the genre. Sure, the performances are strong enough (especially Dane DeHaan), but even strong performances couldn’t really elevate the characters beyond their limitations. Again, much like with the film’s story, it doesn’t feel like much care was given to making its characters particularly deep or intriguing. One could argue that it’s not necessarily needed in a horror film, but it’s also difficult to care about anything when there’s not all that much to invest in character-wise.
I think it’s probably worth mentioning at this point that, for all my criticism, A Cure for Wellness is not a poorly made film by any means. In fact, I would say that Verbinski and friends show a strong and clear understanding of how to construct a compelling horror experience. But all the great window-dressing doesn’t make up for the film’s inherent hollowness, and that’s really where A Cure for Wellness falls down in the long run. While I could certainly envision something like this as a short or part of a horror anthology, it doesn’t quite hold up as a stand-alone feature. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, A Cure for Wellness is a sumptuous, supremely creepy, weird, unsettling, and grotesque spectacle. But beyond that value, I wouldn’t say it has much else to offer.