A Cure for Wellness, a new psychological horror from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, begins with Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a Wall Street stockbroker whose ambitions leave him with few moral qualms and little concern over his health, receiving a promotion.
However, as his bosses are aware that his dealings may have fallen short of being legal, they force him to retrieve the company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener) from the remote treatment centre based in the Swiss Alps where he has absconded and sent a cryptic letter lambasting capitalist society.
Upon arriving at the facility, housed in an old castle, it becomes clear that the wellness centre is no ordinary health spa and that his mission may be more complicated than dragging Pembroke onto the next available flight. A seemingly simple task is made even more difficult when Lockhart sustains a broken leg in a car accident, raising the suspicion that like at the Eagles’ Hotel California, Lockhart may be able to check-out any time he likes, but can never leave.
Stuck amid a collection of elderly patients, all former captains of industry, who appear to be blissfully indulging in relaxing pastimes like croquet and crossword puzzles, Lockhart uses his time to investigate the institute and its mysterious director Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs).
His suspicions are further aroused by Dr. Volmer’s unconventional water based treatments, tales he is told about the castle’s grisly past, and his meetings with Hannah (Mia Goth), a teenage girl who has suffered childhood trauma and other than the gradually institutionalised Lockhart, is the wellness centre’s youngest patient by several decades.
Verbinski’s film is ambitious and fairly original – amid a horror movie landscape flooded with sequels and lo-fi ghost stories it is rather refreshing to see an attempt at an old fashioned epic psychological thriller. A good idea is however weighed down by a leaden script ridden with cliches and uneven pacing. Unlike in the best psychological horrors, where horrible truths are slowly revealed as lurking beneath a mundane reality, it’s fairly obvious something’s badly amiss from the moment Lockhart sees the castle. Worse, it’s pretty easy to work out the general shape of what that might be.
The result is a film that reveals its horror hand fairly early and then wants to continue playing it in ever weirder and more ridiculous ways. In parts this is endearingly bonkers – Isaacs has tremendous fun as the obligatory European villain, doing what is now a common turn for him. However the film runs for almost two-and-a-half hours and there’s a sense that as an audience we are being taken in circles by bizarre and needless plot twists to get to a final denouement that could have been reached in 90 minutes.
DeHaan does not quite convince as a thrusting stockbroker with a troubled past, although Goth puts in a star turn as the ethereal Hannah. There are also nice performances in smaller roles from Celia Imrie and Adrian Schiller.
There are both fun and frightening moments in A Cure For Wellness, not least the constant and disconcerting presence of the eels which pop up with alarming regularity, a bizarre sequence in a Swiss metal bar and any scene featuring Isaacs.
However Verbinski seems to have attempted to cram too much into what should have been a slick thriller, and the result is a film that is packed with interesting ideas but which veers all over the place, sometimes genuinely frightening but at other times just frighteningly bad.
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