"A Cure for Wellness" will be divisive. It does not provide easy answers, at least to those who aren't paying eagle-eyed attention. It will frustrate and alienate mainstream audiences who prefer studio-made regurgitations of the same, old thing. Commercial prospects are questionable, at best, for what is a rare example of lavish, big-budget genre fare with a style and tempo seemingly inspired by 1970s filmmaking. If the evidence onscreen is any indication, 20th Century Fox has allowed director Gore Verbinski (2011's "Rango
") and screenwriter Justin Haythe (2013's "Snitch
") to make precisely the movie they wanted to make, one that isn't afraid to be freakishly weird and just plain out-there while servicing an enveloping artistic vision of uniquely magisterial world-building. Horror, fantasy, character drama and abyss-shadowed film noir provide a cyclone for its puzzle-box plotting, the kind which will no doubt reveal new details and avenues for discussion with subsequent viewings. If the picture feels a little messy from time to time, that, too, appears to be calculated. "A Cure for Wellness" is the cinematic equivalent of a disturbingly vivid fever dream.
When workaholic financial executive Bill Morris (Craig Wroe) drops dead of a heart attack amidst a landscape of sterile desks and illuminating computer screens, fledgling young stockbroker Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) sees it as his chance to swoop into the empty position. He hopes to impress his stone-faced higher-ups, but in order to do so he will have to fulfill a specific task: travel to a fancy spa in the Swiss Alps where CEO Harold Pembroke (Harry Groener) has recently retreated, and bring him back to Manhattan in time to sign off on a crucial merger. Lockhart expects to be in and out of the mountain resort ("20 minutes max," he tells his driver), but from the moment he enters the front doors nothing goes quite as planned. Waking as a patient with a cast on his leg following a nasty car accident, Lockhart meets the institute's shady head, Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), and is drawn to the haunted Hannah (Mia Goth), a lifelong resident who has no memories prior to entering what increasingly reveals itself to be a sanitarium. Something especially sinister is afoot around each corner of the storied building's labyrinthine hallways, and Lockhart is determined to figure out what it isif he doesn't lose his life or sanity in the process, that is.
In the deviously ravishing "A Cure for Wellness," Lockhart's misplaced guilt over a deep-seated childhood trauma chips away at him as his psyche threatens to splinter. He begins the film as a somewhat callous hotshot, priding himself on being in control right down to the Nicorette gum he chews while not, in actuality, being in control of much of anything. Confronted by unfathomable horrors and possible induced hallucinations, he is driven to take charge of more than simply his own egotistical pursuits. A mind-altering, drug-dripping wonderland may not seem like the ideal place to find oneself, but it is exactly what he needs to shake himself awake.
So indelibly phantasmal is every frame one can practically ignore the plot if he or she chooses and simply drink in the sumptuous images. Bojan Bazelli's (2016's "Pete's Dragon
") cinematography is high art in motion, dripping with the equivalent atmosphere he previously brought to his collaboration with Verbinski on 2002's "The Ring
." He crafts a forebodingly fabled diorama, a universe simultaneously contemporary, retro and off-center from reality. An early shot of Lockhart's train chugging along toward a mountainside tunnel is astonishing, its reflection in the windows creating a sort of live-action Rorschach between two parallel illusory worlds. Eve Stewart's (2014's "Muppets Most Wanted
") handsome production design, used in tandem with Germany's derelict Beelitz-Heilstatten military hospital and Hohenzollern Castle in the Swiss Alps of Baden-Württemberg, aids in constructing the singularly unforgettable fictional locale that is the Volmer Institute.
There is nothing cookie-cutter about Dane DeHaan (2014's "Life After Beth
"). The seeming offspring of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio rolled into one, he is an actor of heft and measure, of world-weary intensity and dark magnetism. He is perfectly matched to the role of Lockhart, wholly plausible as someone who is who he is and not concerned about being liked. Even so, Lockhart is a prickly protagonist worth watching; the gentle way, for example, he interacts with his mentally ailing mother (Rebecca Street) in an early scene goes a long way in establishing he's not unfeeling. Onscreen for nearly every moment, DeHaan emanates so many compelling, contradictory shades that he can only strike as complicated and fully realized. For her part, Mia Goth (2015's "Everest
") is an ethereal revelation as Hannah, the youngest patient of the largely senior-centric hospital. Like a present-day Shelley Duvall, Goth is unlike anyone else working today, at once out of time and piercingly soul-bearing.
"The cure for the human condition is disease, because only then can there be a cure."
This line, spoken late in the proceedings, is at the shuddersome heart of Gore Verbinski's ominous, epic mind-twister. A Russian nesting doll of a motion picture, each layer opens to reveal another. Fears large and smallof dental trauma, of claustrophobia, of aquatic distress, of squirming eels, of loss of identity, of so much more worth individually discoveringcoil like a rattlesnake, deepening the viewer's immersion and anxiety. Meanwhile, composer Benjamin Wallfisch's (2016's "Lights Out
") orchestrations are an ideal match for the imposing scope they accompany, pivoting between the eerily experimental, the gracefully poignant, and the intoxicatingly bombastic.
Densely imagined and boldly designed, "A Cure for Wellness" thrillingly takes its time, allowing each scene to breathe while washing over viewers willing to go along for the narratively elaborate, psychologically challenging, intoxicatingly deliberate ride. Does it always make perfect sense, and does every last element pay off in the long run? Not really, nor should it have to. There's a place for everything-but-the-kitchen-sink filmmaking, of films driven by ambition, visual innovation, and the desire to try something new at the risk of not consistently sticking the landing. There's a place, as well, for stories drenched in unnerving mood and ample suggestion. Indeed, good movies come and go, but it takes a truly special one to permanently imprint itself in the watcher's memory. "A Cure for Wellness" is one such offering.