Gore Verbinski Returns To Horror With Gaga "A Cure For Wellness"

From the pages of the nothing-as-it-seems psychological thriller playbook that brought us John Carpenter’s excellent “In The Mouth Of Madness” and Martin Scorsese’s not so excellent “Shutter Island” comes Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure For Wellness.” Given the film’s ancestry, it is no shocker that it runs a sizable deficit in both coherence and novelty. That it ladles on the grotesqueries a little too thick. And that it runs out of gas more than thirty minutes before its final smash to black.

But “Wellness” is notable in its own flaky, freaky way, its visual peaks and narrative valleys neatly summing up the bizarro career of its director.

Verbinski’s first four features went like this: Dark family comedy “MouseHunt.” Romance-adventure misfire “The Mexican.” Surprise mainstream horror hit “The Ring.” Decade-defining blockbuster “Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.” Verbinski pulled off this unlikely career-making quartet through a penchant for excess and deliberately defied expectations. These things have become more than the filmmaker’s calling card; they have become his identity, consuming every frame of every movie he makes. Even his failures, some of them notorious, are bold-stroke failures, the kind of go-for-broke bombs that are hard to dismiss out of hand.

Add “A Cure For Wellness” to the list. The top of the list.

Dane DeHaan (“Chronicle”) stars as Lockhart, a sniveling young Wall Street executive tasked with tracking down his company’s CEO. In our protagonist’s search for a man named Pembroke who has unceremoniously fled to a mysterious spa in Switzerland, he bites off several more mouthfuls than he can chew. To wit: a spooky staff, an eerily subdued population of elderly people, walls that seemingly appear and disappear, a cult-like worship of H2O, and a wraithlike teen named Hannah (Mia Goth) who doesn’t seem to fit in.

From the starting line, story is so overshadowed by mood and audiovisual concerns (a tip of the cap to the hypnotic sound design) that it seems Verbinski didn’t even need to read the entirety of Justin Haythe’s screenplay before signing on. The idea of playing in a sprawling Swiss Alps sanitarium was more than enough to hook him.

Play he does, mining some highly memorable moments from things as elementary as eels, tanks of water, and evil doctor archetypes – one played deliciously by Jason Isaacs. These hallucinatory spikes are prime Verbinski, electroshocking an arcane narrative to life with some regularity. But the patently thin story is also prime Verbinski and cannot withstand its 140-minute running time. Once squished into frenzied plot twists by a director who has no other choice, the film finally collapses.

It’s a fall heightened by an “Oldboy”-esque wrinkle that fails not because it’s unnecessarily squirm inducing, but because it betrays Verbinski and his movie’s sense for creating horror through sights and sounds. For a movie without much of a plot to suddenly live or die by its plot – in this case, die – is a shame, a shame all too often drawn out by Verbinski’s penchant for excess. See: his still disappointing “Pirates” sequels.

Similarly budgeted, semi-recent genre films “The Conjuring 2” and “Crimson Peak” were happy accidents. Healthily budgeted horror movies are an endangered species. As such, starved genre fans may have little choice but to check in to “Wellness.” It just might be enough to sate them until the next $40 million horror picture comes along. (Heads up: It could be years.) For everyone else, Verbinski enthusiasts excluded, it is sure to confound, if not outright repel.

Verbinski fans, on the other hand, could not ask for a tidier summary of their favorite cinematic mystery man – of the thrills and the frustrations, the hits and flops. This one is all of the above.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: February 17, 2017
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth, Jason Isaacs
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language)