Gore Verbinski makes weird movies. Movies that I’m often amazed get massive budgets. Even the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy he did was a very odd gamble that just happened to pay off. With A Cure for Wellness, that gamble is far bigger than usual. With no name stars, a weird premise and a very art house feel to the proceedings, A Cure for Wellness had even less going for it marketing wise than Verbinski’s last film and disastrous flop The Lone Ranger. There’s a clear ambition on display, one that really couldn’t appeal to mainstream audiences in any fashion. But does that negate its ability to work within its own confines? Not really… Verbinski sort of does that to himself.
There are a variety of influences on Verbinski with A Cure for Wellness. Shades of Ken Russell’s Altered States, a dash of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby with the score, even pinches of Requiem for a Dream with the more disturbing scenes of drug addled madness. Yet, Verbinski doesn’t deal with overt homage as much as he does a collage style pallet of influences that mold into his ultimate vision. One that is rather blunt and obvious, but never the less gorgeous and beautiful even in its irregularity. Moments like Mia Goth’s elaborate ballet to Swiss punk music. On it’s face, a rather blunt metaphor for a child-like woman entering an abrasive real world. In execution, it’s a wonderful singular moment that says so much about the character’s fragility and isolation even when surrounded by ogling strangers. There are moments like this where Verbinski showcases his amazing abilities as a visual storyteller, giving us everything we need to know without spelling things out.
Then… he sabotages himself. With a runtime of nearly two and a half hours, so much of A Cure for Wellness is spent on such underwhelming scenes of characters simply expositing the plot to us. Having Dane DeHaan get information out of people about the mysterious past of this sanitarium. He’ll try to dress things up in a few visually interesting ways, but the ultimate goal is still this lengthy exposition that we really don’t need. The most effective scenes in A Cure for Wellness are just ones that set an airy atmosphere. Ones that take advantage of the eerie unsettling nature of this sanitarium as a way of drawing out the implications that lie within. These moments – and less of the ones that involve the ghastly CG – allow us to be sucked into this world and experience it along with Dane DeHaan. Especially as things become more brutal.
One such moment is DeHaan staring at a painting. They tell us all that’s needed… and then Verbinski has to spell things out further. Dragging out a story that’s honestly sort of flimsy on its own face anyhow. Making DeHaan so much of a backseat protagonist that mainly strives to get the plot motioning. Even his arc about turning from a corporate tool into a caring human being feels so tacked on whenever it’s brought up. It doesn’t help that DeHaan seems pretty lost on a performance level. Sometimes he’s channelling Jack Nicholson. Other times he’s doing his best Leo impression. Occasionally, he actually gets to be an actual individual character. Mia Goth is honestly the stand out performance, managing to have so much believable anguish and innocence packed into her mostly silent yet incredibly vulnerable face. Oh, and Jason Isaacs is Jason Isaacs as usual with a Swiss accent. Take of that what you will.
There’s also a grimy sexual angle that will likely turn many off of A Cure For Wellness as things sort of continue along. This certainly isn’t a film for those off put by some extremely disturbing sexual connotations. There’s plenty of phallic imagery with the various eels and the sort of imposed woman-child nature of Mia Goth’s character. The implications are disturbing, but very much an intentional decrying of putting such a role on a woman as sheltered as she is. It’s uncomfortable, but in a way that feels very purposefully decried by the themes. Where old guard ideas of how to cure others are used to keep them docile. It’s a shame that they have to keep the usual “is this a delusion or not” narrative continuing from there to cloud that theme in needless confusion. Especially as the film continues on its multitude of false endings.
Ultimately, A Cure for Wellness is a mixed bag of a mess. The kind of mixed bag that could only come from someone as ambitious and wild as Gore Verbinski. The production design, thematic imagery and sterile terror here say so much, but Verbinski still undercuts things by having to over explain this relatively simple narrative. One moment, it’s brilliant. The next it’s moronic. With a tighter structure, A Cure for Wellness could have easily been an underrated all timer. Instead, it’s a bloated and intermittently brilliant heap of ideas strung together without a necessary cohesion or pacing.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Eels