A Cure for Wellness is that rare thing: the Gothic Thriller. The story involves a yuppie’s quest to bring a Wall Street board member back to New York. The business man seems to have become entombed at a Swiss health spa indefinitely, after suffering a nervous breakdown. Johnathan Lockhart (Dane Dahaan), the young associate who is sent to the rescue, is essentially blackmailed into this task. Upon arriving at the mountain retreat, he begins to wonder at the strange goings on at the clinic, which looks like it was designed by Tim Burton. He also becomes paranoid about the behaviour of the head physician (Jason Isaacs). Isaacs has great fun with the role – thank goodness for that, as everything else here is played rather sourly.
The film is directed by Gore Verbinski, famed for those awful Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the American version of Ringu, but he has also done some interesting work, such as The Weatherman. His films are always shot in a greenish hue, and always look expensive (perhaps because they largely are), and A Cure For Wellness is no exception. It plays like a summary of his career, being simultaneously beautiful and enthralling but eventually boring. At two and a half hours, this thin story is greatly stretched and becomes a slog. DeHaan discovers secrets at the climax which have been obvious to the audience for over an hour.
I’m usually sympathetic to this kind of material, but there are a myriad of problems with the film. The spa looks great, but has so many dark corridors that it begins to play like a movie set rather than a haunted house. We are inexplicably taken on a detour to the local village where everyone is seemingly a barbaric idiot. The man who Dahaan has been sent to retrieve turns out be completely uninteresting. Lastly, the clinic is also home to an ethereal young girl who we begin to suspect the plot my hinge upon, but Verbinski decided to shoot all her scenes as if she was in a Gucci commercial rather than a Gothic thriller.
The pitfalls seen in other recent attempts at the genre also crop up here. There is far too much focus on sumptuous production design (think Crimson Peak) and the lead character has an over-elaborate back-story (Shutter Island). The Gothic is a subtle genre that deals with buried themes, like the unconscious. Here the material explores the fears associated with practices of the aristocracy, but Verbinski is not a subtle filmmaker. He really goes for broke, eventually delivering an ending so hysteric, bludgeoning and over the top that it has to be seen to be believed. That is not a recommendation.
A Cure for Wellness looks great and has some genuine chills in the first half, but then quickly becomes hard work, and is topped off by that ridiculous ending. What’s genuinely worse than a bad movie is a missed opportunity. You know at the end of Dracula nobody cycled off into the sunset.