Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There’s nothing more frustrating than solving a film’s mystery long before the characters in the film actually do. No matter how breathtaking the visuals on display, it only serves to exasperate as we’re left waiting for those on screen to catch-up with the clues. This is unfortunately the case for director/ co-writer Gore Verbinski’s unnerving psychological creepfest, A CURE FOR WELLNESS. Never as great as the sum of its parts, the original picture it paints isn’t so wholly original when the pieces are broken down. Heady ideas, nihilistic social commentary and a gorgeous aesthetic are bogged down by an unnecessarily weighty run time and parts that lack genuine connection. Scathing, acerbic ideologies and highly-stylized, entrancing images don’t quite marry each other in the ways the filmmakers intended simply because there’s a deficiency of necessary follow-through. In order to make it through, you’ll have to be committed.
Wealthy society is always looking for a quick fix for modern malaise. Looking to jump on the latest health fad is assuredly what lured Wall Street businessman Pembroke (Harry Groener) to Austria’s Volmer clinic, led by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Located in a remote Alpine village, the health sanitarium touts serenity, hydro-therapy and a miracle cure. Who would ever want to leave? Not Pembroke, despite his condition worsening. Business comes beckoning when hotshot corporate climber Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is tasked by his superiors to retrieve the MIA CEO. But no sooner than Lockhart witnesses the GOOP-y spa therapies does he begin to suspect there’s something amiss with the good doctor and the clinic, which houses a mystery surrounding a century old legend. Beautiful, frail patient Hannah (Mia Goth) as well as puzzle-loving patient Mrs. Watkins (Celia Imrie) provide some direction as to the sinister secrets behind the spa – but not before Lockhart too crumbles to sickness.
Verbinski’s weird, haunting visuals are this film’s strength, but even those are slightly derivative. European Gothic horror is channeled provocatively. Eve Stewart’s sleek production design earns top marks – as do the crisp, clean costumes by Jenny Beavan. That said, it’s a crushing disappointment that the indelible imagery doesn’t always augment the narrative’s themes, plot or keen insight. By film’s end, it becomes a hollow mimeograph of Verbinski’s inspiration board tear sheets. From the train that brings Lockhart to the clinic, to the basement candle-lit lair, to the orderly’s ballroom dance, well-versed horror fans will recognize iconography from other films. This takes art fetishism to new masturbatory heights. In fact, we actually see an orderly who jerks off while Lockhart is trapped in a sensory deprivation tank, getting attacked by eels. It’s enough for Freud to say, “That’s too much.”
Narratively, CURE pulls from other sources as well. Just like the visuals, the purity of any originality is weighed down by multiple influences that don’t quite coagulate. The only true surprise in regards to the mystery is that the characters haven’t figured things out as fast as you did. Audiences will constantly be two steps ahead of the protagonist’s discoveries and the plot’s twists and turns. The answers are insanely apparent from the get-go and the thin connective tissue develops at a sluggish pace. Flashbacks involving Lockhart’s mom could stand to be cut. It’s unnecessarily long, clocking in at 146 minutes, leading us to have plenty of time to pick apart its confusing logic.
Had the themes Verbinski and co-screenwriter Justin Haythe floated been tied together with some semblance of resolve, it’s possible this would’ve fared better. With the exception of the body horror aspect, the rest of its insights fail to conclude successfully. Symbolism of female sexual awakening feels daring, until it turns into a too-on-the-nose observation. Father-son relationship strife (a tool also used in Haythe’s other adaptation, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD) is interesting, until it’s forgotten about. Other daddy issues curdle almost immediately after presentation. Societal indictments cut deep, until they are left to bleed out.
Missing is the wickedly delicious, dark wit of director David Fincher’s filmmaking – an obvious tonal touchstone for CURE. That’s not to say Verbinski doesn’t have a strong voice. He certainly does. It’s just that, at least here, it’s clear he wants to be seen as smart as a Fincher feature, but has created a dumber knockoff instead. CURE’s opening title sequence is similar to PANIC ROOM’s opening. He and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli match Fincher’s artistry, filling every inch of the frame with an identical sense of intense, cold atmosphere and chilling, sickly color. Clues are uncovered by Lockhart like Nicholas Van Orton does in THE GAME. He even goes so far as utilizing character actors in the same way – specifically casting GONE GIRL’s Lisa Baines in a few scenes. Plus, Volmer’s clinic shares Paper Street Soap Company’s similar philosophy about exploiting one-percenters’ blind naiveté and shallow consumerism. But when it’s all said and done, Verbinski’s work pales in comparison as it inhibits itself in the attempt to be on the same level.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS opens on February 17.