I am part of an obscure minority that enjoys watching whatever Gore Verbinski does next. Ever since he helped popularize the PG-13 Disney flick with his “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, I have come to admire his zany taste, whether it manifests into Johnny Depp licking a rock in “At World’s End” (my personal favorite of the “Pirates” series), flesh-eating rabbits in “The Lone Ranger,” or the entirety of “Rango.” As far as filmmakers of quirk and oddball allure are concerned, he’s a step above Tim Burton (post-“Sweeney Todd,” that is). “A Cure for Wellness” sees Verbinski return to the murky waters of horror for the first time since “The Ring,” one of the better remakes of the 21st century. His eye is sharper than ever here, but too often does the film meander with its Gothic premise, softening the effects of what should be a stomach-churning, heart-pounding descent into madness and depravity.
Upon receiving a mysterious letter from his company’s CEO, Mr. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve him from a wellness center in the Swiss Alps. Complications arise between Lockhart and the staff when he arrives, forcing him to extend his stay. Soon after, his trip back to America is delayed even further when a violent car accident breaks his leg, committing him to the wellness center. As Lockhart struggles to complete his mission, he slowly discovers the twisted history of the sanitarium and the patients’ true function in a sinister plot.
Verbinski is quick to fill the frame with absolute dread from the start, desaturating colors (or lack thereof) and deepening haze. Forget the graphic content; the faded pastel greens are nauseating enough. The ironically sickly atmosphere of the wellness center is heightened by its labyrinthine design. Hallways loop and doorways even disappear in one claustrophobic sequence that takes place in a sauna of sorts. There is also the occasional pop of reflective surfaces, usually water, in the film. It did not hit me until after the film ended that I realized Verbinski has examined the significance of water from nearly every facet in his films. A whole essay could be written on this, but here, water - which the characters guzzle down like Don Draper does with bourbon - is made to be the most revolting object in the entire film, arguably fetishized more than all those eels.
To its credit, “A Cure for Wellness” looks like no other horror film I can recall. There is a bit of a “Shutter Island” vibe within the mystery aspect of the plot, but Verbinski truly owns the material. Less than halfway in, however, the film’s promise of violent ends resulting from violent delights becomes less enthralling. It does lose momentum, but it never becomes tiresome, thanks to the unwavering tone. Certain scenes midway through become repetitive, though every torture-as-treatment that Lockhart brutally endures does generate a visceral reaction. DeHaan is well cast here, and is at his best when Lockhart becomes desperate or panicked; it’s just a shame his character is criminally underdeveloped by the film’s end.
One could argue that Verbinski is actually showing some restraint on comparison to his efforts in “The Lone Ranger,” but I find the director to be at his best whenever he can go absolutely nuts with what he is given. Here, this is exemplified by the grandiose, well-staged climax, in which a character’s nefarious intentions are finally revealed, and everything erupts into a literal blaze. What’s disappointing about this, though, is that it feels unearned due to the film’s lack of narrative focus. As a whole, “A Cure for Wellness” is creepy, sometimes horrifying, but it sadly never reaches its full potential. It’s a machine that is as imaginatively designed as any house-of-horrors flick you’re likely to come by, but one that isn’t oiled as well as its superiors.