The ailing ones shall stay at the spa. For good.
It’s this kind of message that rattles those that Lockhart (Dane DeHaan, Chronicle) works for, seeing as a CEO-less merger will make the company’s stocks topple like Jenga towers at the end of a good game. Knowing the young executive will do anything to advance himself, the board tasks Lockhart with a trip to Switzerland to retrieve the CEO from a wellness center inundated with beauty and a 200-year-old history – the most bizarre and disturbing one in recent memory.
A Cure for Wellness marks the second recent example of a somewhat-maligned filmmaker getting back in touch with the sort of film that made them well-known in the first place. Like M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit and Split, Gore Verbinski displays genuine comfort in navigating material with a lower budget, a more confined setting and – perhaps by coincidence – a notably more horrific bent. Although Verbinski swung for the fences with the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films and, ahem, The Lone Ranger, let’s not forget that he was also part of the creative team that made a superior version of Koji Suzuki’s novel Ringu in 2002. Fox regrettably dropped the ball by abandoning this fact in marketing Wellness; the studio instead coated the director with the now-diluted impact of the word “visionary.”
And yet, with an unwell (excuse the pun) entry to the Ring franchise now in theaters, staying mum on this detail may actually be in the film's favor.
One thing’s for sure, though: Wellness isn’t as crafty as it constantly thinks it is. This puzzler, written by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road), is only ever minimally challenging despite a setup that suggests a head-spinner. All steam, as it turns out. Should any major discomfort be felt, it will likely be on the part of audiences as they yearn for the obvious answers to stop behaving like riddles for the umpteenth time and – as far as the editing is concerned – this far into the film. Maddening as it may be to be ahead of Wellness for what feels like two chess matches, Haythe explores all the dimensions of his morbid universe, letting everything engulf you while drawing a somewhat fascinating observation about modern living: Is being born, working and dying (with few, if any, breaks in between) all there is to the cycle? What does a person think, and what would they do, upon hearing the word “cure?”
Populated with strange “residents” and even stranger staff members, Wellness is nevertheless centered around three people. The younger performers, DeHaan and Mia Goth, overpower Isaacs mostly because of how his character, the wellness center’s director Dr. Volmer, is underused - despite the fine-tuned sense of authority from Lucius Malfoy himself. Complementing DeHaan, now freed from his blockbuster shackles, is the delightfully eccentric Goth. The actress gives fragility a persona and, through that, contributes additional mystique into Wellness’ already-dreamlike world.
In spite of the self-indulgent length, audiences are unlikely to find themselves dozing off - not when Verbinski is serving the imagery. In what may be another unlikely coincidence, the director gets to exercise his immaculate visual style around water, taking advantage of how it is reflective and possesses a natural ability to keep its contents in perfect suspension. Even with a grimier, Gothic and dread-on-dread atmosphere, serene compositions from Verbinski’s go-to director of photography, Bojan Bazelli, and the mournful score from a Hans Zimmer associate, Benjamin Wallfisch (Lights Out), unearth beauty in every horrific proceeding – some of which concern eels and teeth. Predictably, the verve somewhat falters in Act 3, where moments of directorial self-indulgence are most prominent, extending the story’s already prolonged stay and further lessening its impact.
Much like Crimson Peak, Wellness would have perhaps gained more affection in the form of a novel, where a narrative’s well-telegraphed nature can be more forgiving, even at considerable length. That said, while it's likely to divide critics and test audiences, many will walk away with an appreciation for the rich canvas the film tries to paint, as well as the way in which it tells its story clearly, without sacrificing narrative cohesiveness for trailer-happy pacing.
On that note, maybe another dose wouldn't be so bad.