By Preston Wilder
Never mind a cure for wellness, Gore Verbinski needs a cure for pell-mellness. The trailer for this new film by the director of The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean is dazzling, one of those trailers that make you stop and gape in mid-popcorn. Mountains reflected in the flank of a speeding train, a pool of water so clear it appears suspended in mid-air, action unfolding in the glass eye of what looks to be a stuffed animal – all this plus a nicely mysterious air of a mountain eyrie with a grim secret: “No-one ever leaves”; “There is a terrible darkness here…” The trailer doesn’t lie; all this stuff is also in the movie. But it’s thrown together pell-mell, surrounded by other, unrelated stuff without any sense of an organising spirit. And it drags on for two and a half hours.
You’d think Verbinski would’ve learned from The Lone Ranger in 2013, an infamous box-office flop that also clocked in at around 150 minutes, also featured eye-catching visuals, and also felt like two or three different films shoehorned into one. The films in this case might include Verbinski’s own The Weather Man, another tale of a working man who’s spiritually dead inside – just like Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious executive sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from a shady wellness centre in the Swiss Alps – but might also include, say, Frankenstein, since the sanatorium is high on a hill overlooking a village and used to belong to a mad scientist with a penchant for incest. A Cure for Wellness starts like a more baroque version of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, with ideas in the offing (Modern Man as an ailing species, “wrapping ourselves in the illusion of material success”). It ends like a lurid Hammer horror, and tasteless to boot.
This is not necessarily a problem; some of us (I plead guilty) actually enjoy Hammer horrors as much as literary novels from the 1920s. Ambiguity makes the film richer. The head of the sanatorium, sinister Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), could equally turn out to be a villain or a kind of magical guru, depending on whether he belongs in the mad-scientist movie or the spiritual-rebirth movie. It might even be that Lockhart is “dreaming [and] just doesn’t know it”, like the porcelain ballerina that’s a present from his mum – and meanwhile Verbinski keeps teasing us with grand, menacingly empty spaces, la-la-la music and askew, intriguing images. DeHaan is a striking screen presence, the softer lower half of his face offset by a pair of cold, reptilian eyes. The splendidly-named Mia Goth plays Hannah, a fey childlike girl who hovers on the edges of the story, and may be suicidal.
For about an hour, trying to make sense of A Cure for Wellness is intensely pleasurable; the film may be slow – but it’s so imaginative! How does Verbinski plan to tie it all together? What’s the significance of Lockhart’s ‘daddy issues’? (He witnessed his dad committing suicide as a boy.) What’s the meaning of the film’s obsession with blood vs. water? Water, we’re told, is the key to wellness (65 per cent of our body is water), blood a symbol of things dark and hidden, like the menstrual blood that proclaims Hannah’s womanhood – yet blood means life as well, and water means death. What’s the script really saying? “It’s our fluids that must be purified,” notes Volmer, sounding like General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
It should come as no surprise that Verbinski doesn’t actually tie it all together. Instead, the film grows trashy and increasingly grotesque, lurching from one ornate set-piece to another. Some of these are great, like a trip to the village that’s full of nightmarish detail: thugs in the pub, a mute boy painting furiously, a cow’s belly slit open to release a flood of eels and a half-formed calf foetus, ethereal Hannah dancing to a German pop song. Others are just daft and unpleasant, like Lockhart strapped to a dentist’s chair without anaesthetic (you may want to cover your eyes, though you’ll still hear the whir of the dentist’s drill) or being force-fed stagnant water full of eels – a recurring motif – through a large tube. It’s not the gratuitous nastiness of these scenes that’s depressing; it’s the realisation that A Cure for Wellness actually has nothing to say, and is just marking time by indulging its director’s taste for bizarre Terry Gilliam-ish images.
What happened here? Did the film change tack halfway through? It starts so well and becomes so ridiculous. Man is “the only species capable of self-reflection,” says the CEO in the cryptic letter that kick-starts the plot – so why is the film so unreflective? One could still recommend A Cure for Wellness, because there’s much to enjoy for adventurous filmgoers – but the fun, as in Crimson Peak (another recent mishap from a Gothic-minded director), lies mostly in design and photography, and the film is so bloated for its B-movie trappings. “The Lone Ranger has both edge and personality – but how much can a person take?” I wrote despairingly in 2013. Four years on, Gore Verbinski remains un-cured.
DIRECTED BY Gore Verbinski
STARRING Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth
US 2017 146 mins