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A CURE FOR WELLNESS Offers Mood and a Murky Conclusion (Review)

A CURE FOR WELLNESS Offers Mood and a Murky Conclusion (Review)

You never know quite what to expect from director Gore Verbinski. The genre-jumping American filmmaker made his directorial debut with the jaunty children’s movie Mousehunt. Then somehow brokered that into helming the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts crime comedy The Mexican. He switched it up again, unleashing the Gothic terror of The Ring on American audiences, before turning an amusement ride into a blockbuster franchise with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Also in the mix was the bittersweet parable The Weather Man, the wildly weird Western Rango, and the bombastic bomb The Lone Ranger.

Whatever his genre of the moment, Verbinski is a master of composing striking visual spectacle. So when this daring director offers up a psychological thriller about a suspicious spa, the only bet you can comfortably make is that it’ll be packed with style. Sadly, A Cure For Wellness offers far more style than substance.

Dane DeHaan stars as a chilly-hearted businessman called Lockhart, who’s being blackmailed by his ruthless bosses. If he does not retrieve the runaway CEO Pembroke from a far-flung mountain retreat so he might be used as a scapegoat for the company’s numerous white collar crimes, Lockhart will take his place and be led off in chains. So, with narrowed eyes, a perpetual smirk and a take-no-shit attitude, Lockhart is quick to threaten and throw his weight around the eerie wellness center at the foot of the Swiss Alps, where ultra-wealthy and blissed-out retirees putter about in bathrobes like pasture-munching cows. But without cell phone service, this arrogant exec’s ties to the world and his own power are cut off. And he is soon subjected to the treatments of a strange and smiling doctor (the instantly foreboding Jason Isaacs).

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Awash in whites, pale blues, and faded greens, the spa has a soft but dingy look, edged by the staged smiles of its blonde nurses and brawny orderlies. On the surface, this place seems like a dream of swimming, saunas, and lots of luxurious lounge opportunities. But a sinister sound design alive with clicks, rattles, swishes, and whispers, suggests there’s something horrible lurking under the surface. Verbinski luxuriates in his 146-minutes of screen time, brewing atmosphere with long sequences of mounting strangeness. Lockhart bumbles through steam rooms, and wide shots relish in the nude, pale, sagging flesh of the spa’s placid guests. Doorways amid slick tile walls vanish with a gush of steam. Eels slither into sight then disappear into inky depths. Assaulted by nightmarish visions, Lockhart slips into flashbacks to traumas of his past, only to return to a present peculiar and uncertain. These are beautiful yet purposefully off-putting. What is real is up to the eye of the beholder led along by Verbinski’s trippy vision.

But while the atmosphere is spooky and initially compelling, it’s not scary. At best it’s unnerving, but suffers diminishing returns as Verbinski indulgently recycles story beats. Again and again, Lockhart uncovers some dark secret, then backslides to complacency with each appearance of the fragile beauty Hannah (a wide-eyed Mia Goth). She is a “special case” who traipses about barefoot, humming a tuneless song that becomes a taunt as it recurs and recurs while the plot stalls, trapping us with the thoroughly unpleasant protagonist in a ponderous purgatory. Then, out of nowhere, the last act goes totally off the rails. All Verbinski’s established mood and subtlety is chucked out in favor of outright camp and grotesquerie.

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Have you ever fallen asleep watching one movie, then woken up during another in the heat of a violent and ludicrous climax? Imagine wedging those two movies together, however crudely, and that’s how A Cure For Wellness resolves. Gone is the eerie elegance, the patient restraint of Verbinski’s first two acts. Abruptly, there is weird waltzing, sexual violence, and ghoulish monster make-up, all colliding in a cacophonic climax that’ll likely leave audiences itching with questions and confusion.

3 out of 5 burritos.

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Image: Twentieth Century Fox

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