There’s at least one thing that can be said for Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure for Wellness”: It’s certainly much better than the director’s last effort, the excruciating “Lone Ranger” debacle from four years ago, and it’s more interesting than the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels he has been busying himself with, too.
On top of that, “A Cure for Wellness” — set in an antiquated Swiss sanitarium for the rich seeking relief from the stresses of modernity — has a chilly allure; you can almost feel the drafts of damp, cold air coming down the long, austere halls.
Verbinski is quite adept at setting up this world and placing his protagonist — a young, humorless corporate apparatchik named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) sent to this remote spa to retrieve his company’s CEO, who either refuses to or can’t leave — within it. The auto-meets-deer accident that turns Lockhart from a visitor to a patient is impressive in its careening, bone-crushing force, a salute to the visual skills of Verbinski and his cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli (“Pete’s Dragon”).
But a crafty setup without a compelling story is like a beautiful kitchen without any food. You leave both hungry.
In this case, as the layers of the plot get pulled back, “A Cure for Wellness” becomes increasingly less involving. In his efforts to escape, Lockhart soon locks horns with the head of the institute, a doctor named Volmer (Jason Isaacs), and befriends a mysterious young girl on the grounds named Hannah (Mia Goth). She doesn’t seem to be a patient and, if she is, she’s certainly treated very differently from the others. What’s her story? And what’s in the water that everyone is obsessed with imbibing?
Yet instead of keeping this a tightly wound yarn of imprisonment and escape, Verbinski — working from a script by Justin Haythe (“The Lone Ranger,” “Revolutionary Road”) — opts for something bigger, grander and more operatic, sending the film wildly off the rails over the course of its far-too-long 146-minute running time. That in and of itself wouldn’t be such a bad thing if “A Cure for Wellness” were at least entertaining in its excess, but it only sometimes rises to that occasion.
Sure, there are some certifiably creepy moments. If the sight of dentistry without anesthetic, slithering eels everywhere you look (in the toilet tank and the deprivation tank!), Swiss punks/goths getting mouthy and violent, or odd-looking, smile-deficient medical staff being unhelpful sends you running for the exits, prepare to spend some time in the lobby.
Verbinski deserves credit for coming up with a film that can’t be easily fit into a slot. There are elements of horror — those eels are the stuff of nightmares — but it’s not a standard horror film.
Yet art direction, the occasional shock and refusal to fit into a stylistic straitjacket can’t make up for the silliness and disappointing payoff of the film’s last act. You can only go so far spackling over an overblown yet thin plot with dental drills and slimy fish.