“A Cure for Wellness” finds the accomplished popular filmmaker Gore Verbinski working in an unfamiliar and unclassifiable mode, making a movie that combines elements of horror, psychological thriller and contemporary satire, set in and around a Swiss sanitarium.
That in itself distinguishes the movie from the cavalcade of sameness that surrounds it at the multiplex these days; one shouldn’t underestimate the sheer pleasure of encountering a project that’s willing to deviate from the typical obsession with plot and hitting storytelling beats in an attempt at something grander.
The movie stars Dane DeHaan as a workaholic Wall Street executive named Lockhart, assigned by his company with retrieving their wayward CEO from a health spa housed inside a castle high in the Alps, run by the malevolent Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs, cornering the market on this shtick between this film and “The OA”).
This is not your everyday establishment for rest and relaxation. Immediately, we learn it’s been constructed on a site with a gruesome past; it’s staffed by hollow-eyed workers that practically sneer while insisting on helping our intrepid protagonist; it’s suspended in a state of rusty turn-of-the-20th century decay with steampunk touches; the elderly patients go about their healing routines with unsettling methodological focus. And no one ever leaves.
These are haunted people and this is a place consumed by sinister happenings, the details of which Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and screenwriter Justin Haythe leisurely unpack over the course of 145 minutes.
It’s a movie of richly surreal compositions in the form of jarring flashbacks, hallucinatory visions of, say, a deer in the showers, and wide shots of mass activities such as residents swimming in a tank or performing other water exercises in which they start to seem less like patients and more like test subjects.
Engulfed in gothic atmospherics and blessed with the conviction that the complicated truths of Lockhart’s internal and external worlds need not be tidily explicated, “A Cure for Wellness” effectively mirrors the defining turmoil of the character’s past with the subversive threats facing him in his nightmarish present.
After so effectively establishing his “Shining”-in-a-wellness-center vibe, a world of fraying sanity and uncertainty, it’s disappointing to note that Verbinski opts for heavy-handedness as the movie develops, abandoning the mystery in favor of the sort of obvious exposition that Stanley Kubrick expertly avoided.
There are the bones of a truly special movie here, but “A Cure for Wellness” doesn’t ultimately live up to its promise. Falling short when you’ve aimed this high, however, is worthy of admiration.