A Cure For Wellness is a film that I really wish I liked more than I actually do. It has a lot going for it as an unapologetically R-rated supernatural mystery thriller that doesn’t rely on a previous work as its source material, and for a while I was totally on board for the wild ride the film was promising me. But here’s the thing about ambition and promises: the bigger the payoff you promise, the harder it is to deliver it. A Cure For Wellness doesn’t quite deliver, which is unfortunately the only way that the irksome little quirks of the story’s delivery would have been justified.
Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is an ambitious young businessman on a rising trajectory within his company. One day he is called into a meeting with the board and tasked to retrieve a rogue director who has hidden himself away in a remote spa in the Swiss countryside. Upon his arrival, he is continually stonewalled by the staff, and it starts to become increasingly clear that there is more going on at the facility than meets the eye, despite the pleased demeanor of the spa’s patrons. What builds is an intriguing mystery revolving around the establishment’s troubled history, a young woman too innocent for her years (Mia Goth), a manipulative head physician (Jason Isaacs), and a multitude of eels.
And when I say intriguing, I mean intriguing. Director Gore Verbinski is an old hand at horror tension, so when it comes to setting up curiosity and morbid fascination with the hidden dangers of the wellness center, he’s able to do so effectively. It helps greatly that the production and costume design are superb, with cinematography that perfectly captures the balance between cold, surgical sterility and Gothic darkness. It’s a chilling atmosphere that is wonderfully rendered, so if nothing else the film does well to set the mood before it ultimately falls apart.
At nearly two and a half hours long, things really start to unravel near the one hour mark as it becomes clearer that the conclusion to this mystery may not be as shocking or novel as you want it to be. Verbinski draws a lot of artificial attention to key background details that are necessary for setting up the ultimate conclusion, but make that conclusion unfortunately obvious due to a lack of subtlety or red herrings. There are a lot of moving pieces at play in unraveling the plot, but it only takes a moment of consideration for how these pieces could possibly fit together for the truth to be painfully clear, and I was left wanting for more surprises than the plot was prepared to deliver.
This wouldn’t have been as dire an issue had the film remained engaging enough to distract from the weakness of its central mystery, but Justin Haythe‘s screenplay just doesn’t carry the weight. Lockhart is a flimsy protagonist who is supposedly made multidimensional by a tragic backstory, but in actuality his supposed depth only serves to bloat the film further. Dialogue is more often than not foreboding and symbolic, which would fit the Gothic atmosphere were it not laid on so thick that it borders on self-parody. And structurally, Haythe’s and Verbinski’s story is so invested in playing coy with its precious mystery plot that it puts its protagonist through two falls from grace in order to space out its reveals and put off the climax.
I really wanted this movie to be good, but it just can’t sustain the intrigue and gravitas that it so clearly desires, despite the obvious skill of the director and production team in putting together their dreadfully creepy take on the spa industry. Some diehard Verbinski aficionados may be on board for the self-indulgence, but for general audiences… well, let’s just say that A Cure For Wellness is about as appealing as the eels it places so prominently in center frame.