Everybody’s sick with something in “A Cure for Wellness,” be it vanity or avarice or envy, though it’s clear that whatever regimen the mysterious Dr. Volmer has devised isn’t helping one bit with their recovery. As played by Jason Isaacs, who hovers about the movie’s ominous Swiss sanitarium, Dr. Volmer comes across like a character straight out of a classic American International Pictures horror show, and that’s precisely the vibe director Gore Verbinksi appears to be going for in a movie that, while creepy, won’t do much to dig him out of the hole he made for himself with “The Lone Ranger.”
Unfortunately, it feels as if Verbinski has failed to grasp the most important lessons of that misstep, delivering once again an extravagant B-movie homage that is longer, darker, and more unwieldy than the genre demands, while failing to produce a character that audiences much care about at its center. Though Isaacs clearly has the movie’s meatiest role — the sort of scenery-chewing opportunity that might have gone to Vincent Price in a previous era — Justin Haythe’s screenplay is lopsided toward an irritating young man named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) who finds himself trapped in Dr. Volmer’s insidious clinic.
But Lockhart is hardly an innocent himself. Like a cross between the characters Leonardo DiCaprio played in “Shutter Island” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he’s an unscrupulous and quite possibly unhinged young investment shark, dispatched to Switzerland to retrieve a senior partner who appears to have gone a bit crazy there. A more efficient version of the same story might have opened with Lockhart’s arrival at the movie’s stunning sanitarium, located on the site of a castle burned to the ground by suspicious villagers more than a century earlier. Instead of teasing this deliciously occult backstory, Haythe false-starts with a grisly prologue in which one of Lockhart’s colleagues suffers a heart attack over the office water cooler.
Though the point of this unnecessary scene seems to be that men in Lockhart’s line of work run the risk of killing themselves out of sheer stress, it also serves to introduce what will become Verbinski’s pet motif for the film: a sinister new way of looking at water. Rich folks pay top dollar to take in the allegedly fountain-of-youth-like effects of the aquifer-fed waters at the remote wellness center where Lockhart spends the rest of the movie, and yet, Verbinski slyly suggests that these healing liquids aren’t quite as advertised (meanwhile, the staff all seem to be drinking supplementary “vitamins” from cobalt blue vials).
The location is clearly the star here, as production design maestro Eve Stewart seamlessly combines the stark institutional feel of Germany’s Beelitz-Heilstätten hospital with the hilltop perch of Hohenzollern Castle, surrounded by breathtaking panoramas of the Alps. Early on, we’re told that the villagers don’t get along with “the people on the hill,” establishing the sort of uneasy tension that once led an angry mob to storm Frankenstein’s castle — and indeed, Dr. Volmer is dabbling in similarly against-nature experiments of his own, which will be revealed in due time.
A century earlier, a spa environment of this sort might have been considered an idyllic retreat from the pressures of the modern world, and yet, as presented here, it feels as superstitiously old-fashioned as electroshock therapy and leeches. Not even for a moment are audiences invited to daydream about a sojourn here; instead, Verbinski twists the scenario to exploit whatever anxiety we might have about being committed to such a place.
Lockhart’s first attempt to leave ends in a nightmarishly brutal car accident, triggered by a deer whose own cruel fate the film renders in graphic detail. Awakening with his leg in a cast, Lockhart now finds himself captive in a place where everyone else has voluntarily elected to stay — and while there’s probably some horror in being held against his will, it isn’t nearly as interesting as the alternate dream-like scenario of being seduced by a situation you know you should resist, but can’t, like the unsuspecting sailors who succumb to the Sirens of Greek mythology.
The equivalent here would be a young female patient named Hannah (Mia Goth), who may be the source of the skin-crawling la-la-la ditty that haunts the soundtrack. Dr. Volmer describes her as a “special case,” and indeed, she doesn’t appear to be from the same time as anyone else at the clinic. It’s as if she wandered astray from her picnic at Hanging Rock and wound up here, surrounded by unhappy older people (such as Celia Imrie and Harry Groener, who plays the man Lockhart was sent to retrieve), and Lockhart quickly convinces himself that it is she who needs saving.
As viewers, it’s very hard to commit to any established system of logic while watching all of this unfold, as Verbinski and editors Pete Beaudreau and Lance Pereira encourage an almost hallucinogenic approach. In addition to deliberately blurring Lockhart’s notion of time (via blackout ellipses and odd flashbacks to the music-box ballerina his mother gave him during her final days), they invite surreal details to warp what limited sense of reality this place provides — such as the eel-related imagery that appears everywhere, from the clinic’s entrance gate to trompe-l’oeil gimmicks in which Lockhart thinks he sees them wriggling beneath the skin of his fellow patients.
What Verbinski is doing here amounts to a two-and-a-half-hour exercise in atmosphere, using all the tools at his command to create a sustained feeling of suspicion and dread — from Benjamin Wallfisch’s ominous score to DP Bojan Bazelli’s green-tinged visuals (a partnership forged on Verbinski’s even more effectively psyche-scarring “The Ring”). As in “Shutter Island,” we’re led to wonder whether there’s merit to the protagonist’s paranoia, of if he’s simply merely going insane himself.
When Lockhart finally does get to the bottom of the mystery, however, the explanation is a serious letdown, a tawdry cliché rehashed from the likes of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes.” The movie deprives us of either a tragic villain or a sympathetic lead, hoping that its grab bag of squirm-inducing details — dental drills, stillborn livestock, flesh-eating eels — will suffice, when in fact, they reveal how a shorter, tighter treatment ought to have done the trick.