Is it possible to love every frame of a motion picture and still think it amounts to a bad movie? A Cure for Wellness is a visually stunning, go-for-broke slowburner that somehow estimates a Hammer Horror by way of The Matrix aesthetic and still fails to succeed as a complete, satisfactory picture. It’s impressive that a major studio production directed by a man best know for helming the exhaustingly empty swashbuckling blockbusters The Pirates of the Caribbean could possibly be this deeply strange & willing to delve into exploitative cruelty. The problems that plague other major Gore Verbinsky projects persist here, however; A Cure for Wellness is too long, too dumb, and too disappointingly self-serious for how well crafted it is as a visual object. A filmmaker with this meticulously inventive of an eye should likely have much better taste when it comes to telling stories, instead of applying that craft to something so idiotically pointless at its best, genuinely evil at its worst.
Dane DeHaan echoes the same goofy Keanu Reeves impersonation he took to outer space in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in his lead role as a laptop-addicted Business Prick. While climbing the corporate ladder at The Big Company (I honestly have no idea what his job details outside getting visibly frustrated with incongruous graphs on various computer screens), he is deployed on a mission to recover a member of the the board who has gone AWOL. This path leads him to a Swiss spa/health retreat, where the man he’s tasked to bring back to the Corporate World has checked himself in as an AWOL permanent patient. Like the commune in the back end of [safe], this sanitarium/cult is presented as a cure-all for the ills of modern living. “Diseases” like self-doubt & the “illusion of material success” are “cured” through sensory deprivation, “water therapy,” and mysterious droppers filled with special “vitamins,” leaving all patients essentially lobotomized & stuck in a limbo. The more times DeHaan’s Business Prick upstart declares “I am not a patient!” as he struggles to complete his intended mission, the further he loses himself in the daily rituals of the spa cult, discovering long-buried secrets of incest, murder, brainwashing, collusion with the law, and immortality-seeking science experiments along the way. By the time castle fires & monstrous ancestors are introduced in the mix, the film could easily pass for a Hammer production or an entry in The Corman-Poe Cycle (if it were half as long and half as dumb).
The most immediately apparent problem in A Cure for Wellness is its gleeful cruelty in its approach to sexual assault. This starts very early with an out of nowhere racist prison rape joke and culminates in a scene involving an underage girl that goes on way longer than necessary to gets its point across, easily slipping into exploitative cruelty. It’s a mean streak that has little, if anything, to do with the film’s core themes and likely should have been edited into oblivion, but it’s also a blatant flaw that doesn’t require much deliberation. What really drags the film down is unwieldy and underdeveloped it feels for a movie that’s nearly three hours long.
A Cure for Wellness‘s greatest strength is its absurdity as an overwhelming, bat shit crazy genre picture. Marrying high production values to a low trash premise that doesn’t deserve it, the film is loaded with weirdo imagery of slithering eels, steam punk machinery, medicine bottles, eels, ballerina figurines, soft naked flesh, eels, RoboCop action figures, and even more eels, sometimes all rapidly flashing on the screen in dream sequence montage. It just doesn’t contain enough of those visual pleasures to justify the massive weight of its runtime. In some respects, the weirdest choice the movie makes is withholding the answers to mysteries that are immediately apparent to the audience for several scenes, then treating their reveals like a big deal no one saw coming. Lies, accidents, past traumas, and untold motivations are kept under wraps in see-through gauze, essentially treading water instead of making the movie shorter or pulling the trigger immediately to make room for more oddities. For instance, why make a huge deal out of the mystery of what’s making DeHaan’s toilet tank rattle for three or four scenes if the reveal is only going to be that it was eels all along? We immediately knew it was eels. Everything in the film is brimming with eels. Delaying that reveal does not build tension; it just wastes time.
The ideal version of A Cure for Wellness is probably about an hour shorter and directed by Guillermo del Toro. On some level, I do very much appreciate the taste for excess that Verbinsky brings to the project, especially when it comes to his eye for over-the-top visuals. Framing shots from the POVs of magnifying glasses, fish bowls, and taxidermy eyeballs, the film is about as tastefully overachieving as Michael Bay’s Armageddon and I love that kind of go-for-broke excess in my genre films. The eel imagery is also impressively chilling, even if employed often & never thematically justified. Equipped with that same imagery, I’d trust del Toro to deliver a much more satisfying narrative, though. Not only would the sexual assault mean streak lightly be softened or diminished, but there’s a fairy realm element to the Swiss spa (especially in how you’re not supposed to drink the water) I could see being better explored in his hands. Verbinsky’s direction works very well when setting up individual scares gags (especially ones involving eels & dentistry), but his unwieldy, unending, thematically thin blockbuster approach to the Pirates movies has bled over here in a way that poisons what makes the movie enjoyable. A Cure for Wellness is an impressive visual achievement for sure, but not impressive enough to justify the enormity of its runtime or the exploitative cruelty of its ultimate destination. The resulting experience is endlessly frustrating, as it could easily be a much better picture with the right creative push, either towards brevity, away from sexual assault exploitation, or into another director’s hands entirely.