Gore Verbinski does not believe in half measures.
The director most known for shepherding the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies to serious box office success was in danger of falling out of favor with Hollywood after The Lone Ranger lost Disney close to $200 million back in 2013, but it appears Fox didn't get the memo with the release of his new project, A Cure for Wellness, an entirely original and undeniably ambitious (as well as seemingly quite expensive) film that garnered buzz thanks to a killer trailer released last fall. Verbinski always has the habit of “weirding up” his movies, even when working on the blockiest of blockbusters (this is the man that brought us Captain Jack Sparrow, after all), making him a unique voice in the industry, always finding a way to catch his audience off their guard. This is especially true when Verbinski is freed of expectations (no one really expected all that much of his Japanese horror remake The Ring, which remains surprisingly effective even to this day) and the pressures of tentpole filmmaking, allowing him to flex his storytelling muscles and visual flair with a subject more in line with his sensibilities than Disney-branded pirates and cowboys.
That subject, it seems, is eels. And lots of them.
Here, Verbinski hangs his film on the shoulders of Dane DeHaan, who plays a young financial executive named Lockhart who is enlisted to travel to a remote and mysterious wellness center hidden away in the Swiss Alps in order to retrieve their AWOL CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener) who went for a retreat and never returned. Assuming a quick and dirty business trip, Lockhart soon finds himself enveloped in the mystery of the place, enchanted by a beautiful waif (Mia Goth of Nymphomaniac, who is excellent here) and alarmed by the reassuring though not entirely un-ominous director of the facility, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs, leaning into honeyed menace with glee). When Pembroke won’t leave without a fight, Lockhart descends into the sinister underbelly of the place, finding secrets (and eels) lurking behind every corner and far more at stake than meets the eye.
There's an undeniable sense of opulence to this sanitarium hidden away in the Swiss Alps, with enough mysteries and hidden rooms to make a high rise hotel blush. The world-building of A Cure for Wellness is among its biggest strengths, with Eve Stewart’s alluring and often disturbing production design coaxing you ever deeper into the riddles of this place. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli captures some marvelous visuals, whether placing his camera on the side of a train racing through the countryside or playing out an entire scene through the reflection in the eye of a stuffed and mounted deer. And composer Benjamin Wallfisch completes the triumvirate of mood setters, providing a chilling and distanced score that serves to reinforce the film’s conspiratorial air. It truly is an immaculate production, reminding us of Verbinski’s powers as a filmmaker all over again as he steps from the shadow of blockbuster franchises. The look and the ideas of A Cure for Wellness threaten to be worth the price of admission on their merits alone, though this is clearly not a film for everyone despite Fox’s intention to open it wide on the 17th. Its twisty and labyrinthine plot often bursts at the seams of its own credulity, and could be a tough pill for some to swallow.
As a general rule, the story works but it should work better, especially considering Verbinski has two hours and twenty-five minutes to weave its tale. Things for the most part connect up by the end, but Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe get themselves into trouble more than once, presenting ideas and concepts that poke at the central mystery but never pay off the way they should. DeHaan also seems miscast at first; his reedy voice and slight stature feels wrong for the sort of hard-charging financial executive Lockhart is in the real world, but it pays off when he transitions into the sort of detective/conspiracy theorist he becomes when it’s made clear something sinister is afoot. His naturally pallid skin tone works in his favor there, as does the decision to hinder him with crutches for the entire second act, causing him to strike an increasingly pitiable and desperate figure as the gaslighting sets in. It perhaps takes a bit too long to get there (DeHaan spends the majority of the elongated second act of the film hobbling his way through endless corridors looking for secrets and mostly just finding eels -- seriously, there are a lot of eels in this movie), but there’s an allure to the film that is often undeniable. This is a daring, wholly original and committed piece of work, synthesizing hidden conspiracy thrillers like The Wicker Man and Shutter Island with the baroque gothicism of Crimson Peak and a heavy dollop of surrealist Cronenbergian body horror. It gives itself a lot of balls to juggle at once, and when Verbinski manages to keep them all in the air for an extended period of time, it’s thrilling and depraved and enticing and horrifying all at once. It’s safe to say that there’s nothing else quite like it.
A Cure for Wellness is destined to be a failure. It has no marketable stars. It's too long, too convoluted, too crazy, too horrifying and too weird to have anything even remotely approaching mass appeal, especially in the dog days of February. You’ve got to hand it to Verbinski for being as fearless as he has ever been (maybe a lot more) and to Fox for letting him unleash his id with seemingly no oversight. Unfortunately, it might be the last time we get to see Verbinski play with a budget of this size, and a world where Gore Verbinski can't do what he wants is a sadder world than the reverse. The film is not perfect; far from it, really. It’s undeniably messy in that Terry Gilliam sort of way, and probably has two or three (or seven) too many ideas bouncing off each other. It could have benefited from another editing pass or two, tightening up some of the hanging threads and excising 15 to 25 minutes of bloat, but there is so much ambition here, so much ardor and creativity and beauty and filmmaking joy that it’s tough to deny it a place at the table even if it stumbles a fair few times on the way there. It’s rare a film this original sees the light of day in an industry increasingly defined by reboots and sequels and franchises, and A Cure for Wellness has enough juice to make it worthy of its place in the landscape.