A convoluted plot is not an indicator of sophisticated storytelling. Each intricacy written into a script must serve some measure of purpose: twists and turns leading nowhere only frustrate audiences and disrupt a film’s sense of reality by underlining contrivances. Suspension of disbelief is only possible when the fabrications inherent to a work of fiction are relatively well-hidden by the writer. Many otherwise excellent thrillers have been ruined by poorly planned plots featuring far too many unresolved mysteries by film’s end. Director Gore Verbinski’s latest release, “A Cure for Wellness,” is such a film: a bizarre tale featuring haunting, dreamlike imagery brought low by an overwrought plot.
Having directed 2002’s “The Ring” and the first three installments of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Verbinski is no stranger to horror and visual spectacle. Creepy, intriguing aesthetics have become his forte, and often his saving grace: the disappointing “Pirates” films “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” are redeemed only by the imaginative character and set design found in each. “A Cure for Wellness” is no different.
Opening on a frightening vision of New York City – one in which black skyscrapers stretch into a sickeningly green sky, while traffic passes silently below – “Wellness” introduces viewers to its protagonist, a young Wall Street executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan). A ruthless businessman, Lockhart’s hooded eyes and condescending drawl mark him as sinister and unabashedly self-serving. When he’s blackmailed and sent to recover an eccentric CEO from a mysterious sanitarium located in the Swiss Alps, no sympathy is felt.
Resting atop a forested mountain, surrounded by dark forests and impenetrable mists, the sanitarium is almost completely isolated. Locked away from the 21st century, the ancient castle and its inhabitants occupy a strange world seemingly unfamiliar with mainstream science. Bizarre treatments are performed daily, all in the service of curing a mysterious illness affecting all who check into the clinic. Lockhart himself is soon diagnosed with the disease, and reluctantly submits to a rigorous “cleansing” regimen prescribed by the sanitarium’s founder, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). The charismatic Volmer touts the restorative properties of the water found in an aquifer beneath the castle’s grounds, and assures Lockhart that if he would simply comply with his treatment, all will soon be well.
But of course, darkness lurks beneath the surface of the sanitarium’s famous pools and baths. Lockhart is tortured by visions of eels, evidence of wrongdoing and the sanitarium’s unsettling history. His encounters with a mysterious young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth) only further his confusion. Pale and clothed in a faded dress, she drifts about like a ghost, walking the high sanitarium walls before descending to earth and offering vague explanations for her special relationship with Volmer.
Unfortunately, the dreamy eeriness of the sanitarium is routinely shattered by unnecessary flashbacks to Lockhart’s childhood. Uneven cinematography also takes its toll; it’s disheartening to see the unique aesthetics of “Wellness” fall short of their potential. However, there are moments of perfection – enough to warrant a viewing by any with an appreciation for the surreal. Those who prefer realism in their entertainment will find nothing of worth in “A Cure for Wellness,” as it’s simply too bizarre, but Verbinski’s warped vision will undoubtedly be well-received by filmgoers willing to forgive poor storytelling and focus on the movie’s wonderfully odd imagery.