Movie Review: “A Cure for Wellness”

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There was probably never a time when Gore Verbinski could have made a small scale horror picture about a man trapped in a sanitarium. Think of the glorious excesses of “Mouse Hunt.” And that came before the blank check that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise guaranteed.

So it’s no surprise that “A Cure for Wellness” suffers from elephantiasis. It’s too long, entirely too gorgeous with stunning sets, striking lighting and design, with a finale that is entirely over-the-top.

The visual cues are from Kubrick and Hitchcock — imagery suggesting “The Shining” and “A Clockwork Orange” and Hitch’s “Spellbound.” There’s a hint of Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” in the conspiracies — business and otherwise — in its plot.

What “Cure” doesn’t do particularly well is introduce a mystery, add menace and heighten suspense in racing towards a conclusion. There’s no “Race” for the “Cure.” Still, it’s just chilling to experience, a novel and thought-provoking take on what ails us and our fruitless search for relief.

Dane DeHaan (“Spider-Man 2”) is Lockhart, a workaholic rising star at a Wall Street firm whose CEO has gone AWOL. There’s panic and menace in the board as they openly blackmail Lockhart into traveling to the Swiss Alps to retrieve a man whose signature is needed on a desperately needed merger, and whose latest communique is, frankly, a tad demented.

Pembroke (Harry Groener) has lost the plot, or maybe found enlightenment with his musings on “the toxin of self-doubt written into our genetic code” in search of “the illusion” of success.

Either way, the firm’s not having it. And Lockhart flies out, takes a train and then a private car to the exclusive-beyond-exclusive mountaintop retreat where everyone engages in tai chi, plays badminton and croquet in pajamas and robe, eats sumptuous meals and takes “the cure.”

The staff of the Volmer Institute seem robotic…or just Swiss in the extreme. The patients, all aged and seemingly a little loopy, let on that “people tend to stay” once they’ve come there. Lockhart’s blunt urgency is met with indifference. But Director Volmer seems reasonable, insisting that this place is just”an enforced vacation.” Of course Pembroke can leave.

“He’s a patient, not a prisoner.”

As the good director/doctor is played by Jason Isaacs, we don’t believe him for a moment.

wellness2.jpgLockhart finds himself trapped there, in a robe, “drinking plenty of (medicinal spring) water” and taking “vitamins” by eye dropper — like everyone else. But he’s suspicious and in control of enough of his wits that the torpor of the patients, all the water cures and “off limits” (written in German) signs for wings of this castle-turned-spa make him hunt for answers.

Could there be something to the animosity the townsfolk have for the “people on the hill,” something more than class resentment? Could the place’s troubled Gothic history reveal all?

DeHaan is perfectly cast as the pasty-faced, sweaty, smart but physically over-matched Young Man of the City utterly out of his element in this place where the “sick” are handled with rough, muscular Germanic efficiency. DeHaan keeps the guy interesting even as he seems unable to string his investigations and suspicions into a workable course of action.

The film’s bigger themes, about wellness and an age where end-of-life care is more technologically advanced than humane (Lockhart’s mother is in a home with dementia) are fascinating and high-minded. That explains the film’s funereal pace. “This is IMPORTANT.”

So long, entrancing shots of shiny, mirror-windowed train circling through the mountains, the camera lingering over the exquisite baroque design of the spa’s baths, grounds and repeated images of the patients’ routine — water exercising, dining al fresco, badminton — must be tolerated, even if the horror gravitas seems unsustainable.

It’s frustrating that Lockhart’s understanding of the place reaches a certain point — the aged English patient (Celia Imrie) and winsome young flake (Mia Goth) are only so much help — and stalls, for basically an hour.

And the climax, like the digital deer that crashes Lockhart’s limo leading to his internment as a patient, is fraudulently deflating. All this effort, so little expense spared, and the long-delayed payoff is — well, this?

Verbinski’s efforts to say “This is IMPORTANT” only make us wonder, “Is it?”

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MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie

Credits:Directed by Gore Verbinski, script by Justin Haythe, story by Gore Verbinski and Justin Haythe. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 2:23

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