Words: Patrick Kolan
(Some minor spoilers ahead – but it’s fine, because this film spoils them for you anyway.)
You remember that kid in school, or maybe at work, who always thought he was smarter than everybody else – when in fact he was a grade-A dumb-shit with a big mouth and lot of swagger? That’s A Cure For Wellness – easily a contender for the worst film of the year – and it’s only March.
Gore Verbinski, who clearly topped out at Pirates of the Carribbean back in 2003, apparently binge-watched Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining – most of Kubrick’s most acclaimed and thinky-pictures, actually – and thought to himself, “yeah, I can do better.” Spoilers: no you fucking can’t. This is a cinematic travesty of the most wasteful and self-important order. The sheer ego it takes to deliver a beautiful wreck of this scale isn’t something that comes along very often; it’s a Waterworld, a Battlefield Earth, a Sucker Punch. It’s big. It’s bad.
After the first fifteen minutes, it was clear that A Cure for Wellness would be pretentious: film school-clever cinematography, breathy and terse dialogue delivered deadpan, faces wan and drawn. There’s the choral score, the thrulling bass, the green colour grading – it’s all there like checkboxes on a psych-horror to-do list. After an hour, you’ll be ready for the credits.
The casting pits an apparently very sleep-deprived Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, Lawless, Kill Your Darlings) against the wellness clinic from hell (a hellness clinic, if you will), run by Draco Malfoy’s dad, Jason Isaacs. DeHaan’s a young go-getter out to retrieve his company’s CEO, who’s gone AWOL at a time of crisis.
He crosses paths with the doe-eyed Mia Goth (Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, Everest), looking every bit like Alice in Tim Burton’s Wonderland revisit. DeHaan uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of the clinic that doesn’t just stretch the limits of plausibility, it punches plausibility in the guts, pushes it into a river and waves goodbye.
And so, Verbinski begins to assemble his pieces on a board game he doesn’t know how to play. Instead, he tries his hand at jump-scares, weird incest and rape subplots and naked old people (because apparently old people getting their kit off is about as scary as it gets when you’re young and alone in the Swiss Alps). It’s Shutter Island with no heart, or Cosmopolis with no wit.
By the two-hour mark, the film has steadily debased itself almost as far as it could reasonably go. We’re talking scenes involving cloaked cult members (hello, Kubrick), candlelight effigies in dank caverns, mysterious super-eels (yeah), dumb reveals and baffling plot holes like moon craters.
Back up for a sec, though. Let’s talk about the eels-thing. The entire plot device that sits at the heart of the film’s mystery is the miraculous water that flows in the Swiss Alps. The film goes to great lengths to show that something’s funky in the water (it’s eels). The first shot of DeHaan drinking a glass of water finds him scraping a baby eel or leech out of the glass, but don’t worry – just drink it! Everybody’s drinking the water in this wellness clinic! IT’S GREAT WATER. THE BEST WATER. DRINK THE WATER. ARE YOU DRINKING ENOUGH WATER? We’re made to wade through two more hours of this crap [drink the water!] before they reveal the twist that they gave away through poor direction in the first act. And that they underscore again in the second act. And repeatedly throughout the film. Seriously, it might well be the most ham-fisted attempt at a twist since The Happening. Terrible.
All of this is to say nothing of the production values – which are high. It’s a shame – all the vintage medical equipment, art nouveau tilework, perfect costuming and hairstyling – it’s all flushed down this eel-filled drain of meaningless pseudo-commentary on…what, greed? The frivolity of youth? The pre-war Germanic obsession with genetic perfection? Low-quality water filters? Who knows. Verbinski might claim he does, but he’s full of shit. Or eels.
A Cure For Wellness is a mess. Unlikeable and sinfully boring for a horror film – not clever, not shrewd in how it tells its tale. Rather, is an inadvertent pastiche of everything it wants to be (or who Verbinski wants to be: David Cronenberg or Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick, take your pick) – a film desperate to be taken seriously, but one that has nothing to say—and what it does say makes no sense. Also, eels.