Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie
There are two Gore Verbinskis. There's the director best known for helming three installments of Pirates of the Caribbean, the very definition of a bloated franchise, and big-budget turkey The Lone Ranger. And then there's the respected auteur behind smart smaller-scale productions like Mousehunt, Rango and the US remake of The Ring. His latest, A Cure for Wellness, plays like a battle between the two Verbinskis; it displays the level of craft we expect of the director at his best, but at a wholly unnecessary 146 minutes, it's the filmmaker at his most self-indulgent.
Loosely inspired by Thomas Mann's 1924 novel The Magic Mountain (a copy of which a character can be seen reading at one point in the film), A Cure for Wellness follows young Manhattan broker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) as he travels to a remote Swiss health spa in an attempt to convince his company's CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), to return to New York and become a sacrificial lamb in a corporate investigation. There he finds a Jonestown type community overseen by Doctor Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), a descendant of the mad baron who once ran the castle and the town below. Breaking his leg in a car crash while attempting to head to town for a phone call, Lockhart finds his attempts to leave the facility, with or without Pembroke, thwarted by a seriously of increasingly strange and disturbing turns.
Verbinski's influences might as well be graffitied all over the pristine walls of his film's central clinic. This is a movie that knows it doesn't have an original thought in its head, instead committing itself whole-heartedly to paying homage to a mix of early twentieth century Central European literature (along with Mann, there's much of Kafka to be found in the bureaucracy of the spa) and mid-century horror cinema (Hammer and Corman's Poe adaptations provide the visual inspiration). Anyone with a passing familiarity with Gothic horror narratives will predict every plot beat here, and won't be surprised when a curtain catches fire and family secrets are exposed.
Despite such a lack of orginality, Verbinski's love of this genre is infectious, and it's undeniably fun to watch him tick off its tropes. In terms of pacing, the movie could easily shed 30 minutes, yet at the same time its oppressive length almost becomes immersive, causing us to share Lockhart's frustration at his inability to escape the facility. There are scenarios that play out three times when once would have sufficed (there isn't a corridor in the institute that Verbinski's camera doesn't slowly track through at some point), but again this plays into the Kafkaesque structure of the narrative. Add a sickly coloured production design and it almost feels as if Verbinski is himself a mad doctor testing the boundaries of his audience's patience. If you're willing to indulge his mad experiment, you'll find much to admire, but like all good medicine, A Cure for Wellness doesn't go down easy.
A Cure for Wellness is in UK/ROI cinemas February 24th.