“Something In The Water Does Not Compute”, Prince once wrote, as the chorus and the title of a “deep cut” from one of his albums. But it could also be the ‘elevator pitch’ that was used to sell the premise of A CURE FOR WELLNESS, Gore Verbinski’s terminally gorgeous-to-look at psychological/Gothic thriller. It’s most fatal flaw, though, lies in its “LORD OF THE RINGS”-lengthiness. The plot of the movie wouldn’t have been out of place back in the salad days of AIP, Universal-International and Hammer flicks. A CURE FOR WELLNESS is basically a great, scrappy little ‘B-picture’, that got overdressed and tangled up in ‘A-picture’ drag.
We see a man in the beginning, typical overworked, overstressed, type-A kinda dude. Working late at the office, he promptly has a massive heart attack and falls over dead, setting in motion all the events to come.
This in turn is how we meet the young go-getter, Lockhart (DANE DEHAAN of CHRONICLE and the recent VALERIAN), who works for the same firm as our recently deceased guy, one Mr. Green. After inheriting Green’s beautiful corner office, Lockhart is summoned to a board room to face his uptight, OnePercenter bosses, who immediately implicate him in some kind of corporate financial skullfuckery – I’ll spare you the details – which leaves him over a barrel with them…not a good place to be. But there is a way out: he has to fly to a mysterious ‘resort’ in the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CFO, one Mr. Pembroke, (HARRY GROENER – Sunnydale’s Mayor Himself from the BUFFY TV series.) It seems that Pembroke, in a letter to the board, clearly indicates that he’s lost his marbles, which would make him the perfect patsy to help cover up the aforementioned misdeeds. Really not having much of a choice, Lockhart sets out to retrieve Pembroke.
What he finds when he arrives is pretty much an idyllic Austrian getaway, nestled in one of those quaint old Bavarian castles, complete with not-too-friendly neighbors in the village below. Lots of older people in robes and slippers, playing badminton, croquet, gin rummy, you know, the usual stuff…when they’re not doing water aerobics and swimming. In fact, water plays a HUGE part in the plot, as the catalyst for the mysteries that Lockhart has to somehow piece together, in order to learn the true secret of the ‘isolated spa’.
In more than enough time, Lockhart meets the charismatic and charming head of the facility, Dr. Volmer, (JASON ISAACS from THE PATRIOT, the HARRY POTTER series as “Daddy Malfoy”, and more movies than I want to try to remember), who seems accommodating enough, trying to arrange for Lockhart to reconnect with Pembroke. In the interim, however, two important events take place: Lockhart spots an unusual and striking girl walking along the castle battlements, Hannah (relative newcomer MIA GOTH, soon to be seen in the SUSPIRIA remake). He also has a tremendous car accident trying to get back to the village, thanks to a stag that appears out of nowhere from the surrounding forest.
Three days later, Lockhart awakens in the spa with a broken leg, and barely any memory of the accident. Assured by Volmer that the people in his New York firm are aware of what happened, Lockhart decides to check the layout to see what’s up with this posh resort. He meets some of the ‘clients’ there, and nothing seems all that off. At first. But the more he looks around, the more unusual things he begins to spot: the grate at the bottom of a small replica on the grounds that’s taking IN air from the outside – and some conversations with said clients. Nothing, of course, matches the moment he first meets Hannah, and as enchanted as he becomes with her, it’s also the point in the movie where the freaky psych shit REALLY starts to kick in.
You’ve seen and experienced all of the usual tropes that follow – and at a more-than-leisurely two-and-a-half-hour-plus-change running time, you feel kind of underwhelmed when you finally get to the third act plot twist, which is something more experienced movie vets will have figured out before the first act is halfway over. As if you couldn’t tell already, that’s my main beef about CURE. Roger Corman, Terence Fisher or any other old-school filmmaker could have taken a fraction of this film’s actual budget, and told the story in ninety minutes or less. (Not to mention made about four more films from the money left over.) And I’m sure this and any other films made simultaneously would have probably starred Vincent Price.
Verbinski, as those in the know are more than familiar, was the mind behind the bulk of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, and also the Americanized remakes of the Japanese RING films. He has a great eye for composition and symmetry…with an almost Kubrickian flair. (There’s even a homage to THE SHINING’S “mountain drive” opening sequence.) And is hardly lacking in skill or confidence when staging sequences, all magnificently photographed by DP Bojan Bozelli (PUMPKINHEAD). So technically, there’s not a thing wrong with the way the picture is executed. The biggest problem with the length lies in Verbinski’s weakness for surfaces, scenery and long, lingering shots…not a bad thing in a travelogue, but not great when you’re supposed to be watching a thriller that could and should be moving at a much BRISKER pace. You can almost tell which scenes the director couldn’t part with in terms of leaving out stuff on the cutting room floor…but he should have. (The meaning of the old adage “You must learn how to kill your darlings” was never more applicable than in this case.)
The performances are definitely solid. De Haan, in spite of some of the stinging criticisms being leveled at him due to the lackluster box office performance of VALERIAN, proves here that he’s a more than capable actor…in fact, he could easily be in line to have a career very similar to that of Leo DiCaprio. His Lockhart is one of your typical corporate toadies, trying to claw his way up to the Executive Suite, but he’s not totally unlikeable. He still has a conscience and a heart, as he proves with his involvement with the extraordinary Hannah, and his insistence in digging into the mystery behind this exclusive retreat.
Jason Isaacs is never boring to watch, and he dials back Dr. Volmer’s darker impulses accordingly, so that there’s some sense of anticipation left towards the end, when the “big reveal” is made. Mia Goth is someone I mistook for the equally ethereal-looking Mia Wasikowska when the WELLNESS trailers first dropped, but Goth is more like the love child of Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. I like the way she portrayed Hannah’s character arc, and how it didn’t seem out of place for her to make the jump from sheltered waif to a more independent woman by the end.
With movies like this, Guillermo del Toro’s CRIMSON PEAK, and more than a few others, I appreciate today’s big-name filmmaker’s affection for the old-school stuff, and their passion to take that love and translate it into making their own movies. But they tend to forget with the abundance of money and resources kind of clouding everything, that what made the old B-pics so special wasn’t just how they were written…it was the INGENUITY and skill behind the storytelling…two integral parts of making those movies, because the people who created them had limited budgets and even LESS time. And that’s CURE’S downfall – with the sense of urgency in the storytelling sorely lacking. The money and the technology made it possible for Verbinski to make the movie he wanted, but the panache of a so-called ‘lesser’ film like HOUSE OF WAX or PIT AND THE PENDULUM – THAT’S what’s missing.
I give A CURE FOR WELLNESS two-and-a-half-out-of-five stars.