Review: 'A Cure For Wellness', Gore Verbinski's Cure For The Common Horror

It's good to see Gore Verbinski back in genre territory and away from mega-blockbusters Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger. His outside pursuits have always been where he's most interesting, anyway. Remember, he's the one who gave us the American version of The Ring, back when it was still a decent horror franchise. He also directed wild and weird animated Western, Rango. No matter what he does, Verbinski brings a focused attention to detail that creates fully-realized worlds (And blows up budgets). He's never created anything quite so strange and fascinating as A Cure for Wellness, a psychological horror that is sure to scar anyone who has a fear of hospitals, old people, needles, snakes, water....

Yeah, there are a lot of things to be fearful of and A Cure for Wellness puts them right in your face. But the greatest fear in this odd morality tale is that of the unlived life. The opening scene depicts a workaholic burning the midnight oil in an empty office building, only to suffer a heart attack so painfully realistic Bayer aspirin may see a sales spike. The man's death means business can't go as usual, and enterprising young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is ordered by his bosses to go retrieve company CEO Roland Pembroke from a Swiss wellness center where he's been for far too long. Pembroke's sanity appears to be slipping, not that Lockhart's evil bosses care, they just need him to close a deal. And Lockhart, who is also no saint, just wants to keep that sweet corner office he just scored.

So right away we see what Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe are doing, and it's addressing the horror that has become our overworked lives. Wellness centers are where people go who are literally working themselves to death, but are incapable of making that diagnosis and fixing the problem themselves. Pembroke's final letter to the company makes light of this point, claiming that he has had a revelation and will never come home. Arriving at the health spa, Lockhart encounters dozens of aged residents, milling around like zombies, who also have no desire to ever leave. Nobody ever leaves, apparently. They just keep going about their day, and drinking that special water the staff keeps serving them. There's something about that water...

The creep factor overtakes any higher purpose A Cure for Wellness might have had at this point, and it's all for the better. A freak and conveniently-timed accident turns Lockhart into a patient and he's forced to endure all of the spa's many "life-saving" resources first hand. He encounters the facility's mysterious head doctor, Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who has taken a very special interest in Lockhart's well-being. Then there's Hannah (Mia Goth), the simple and innocent young girl who Volmer describes as his "special case", words that have never sounded less comforting than when uttered from Isaacs's silver tongue. Between the mystery of Pembroke's disappearance, to old folk tales about the spa's past connection with an evil Baron, to the medical tools that resemble ancient torture devices, a chilly dread begins to settle. Without the need for jump scares or cheap tricks, Verbinski creates an ominous atmosphere that sets in your bones, aided by immaculate cinematography and production design that makes everything look cold, clinical, and sickly.  Echoing the best elements of Kubrick's The Shining, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Scorsese's Shutter Island, Verbinski indulges in every twisted, macabre instinct. You'll double-check that glass of water next time, and probably won't visit the dentist any time soon.

Of course, giving Verbinski such an amazing amount of freedom has its drawbacks. Lockhart's sleuthing isn't so interesting to carry 146-minutes, especially since the final act is where the story grows increasingly pedestrian. Fortunately, the rest of A Cure for Wellness is anything but pedestrian.  With style Verbinski has delivered a truly imaginative genre experience, and a cure for the common horror.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5