“A Cure for Wellness” has no shortage of ambition, production values and eels. But it is woefully short of a coherent story.
Big-screen misfires are rarely as bizarre or exquisite looking as this psychological horror/thriller. Even the most mundane moments are treated as cinematic opportunities by director Gore Verbinski, who at one point films a scene in the reflection of a taxidermied deer’s eyeball. But the Stanley Kubrick flourishes don’t work without a plot to draw us in. We’re left with a movie that is bludgeoning and joyless; a beautiful-looking film that is very hard to watch.
It’s a plodding 2 ½ hours long, with an abundance of livestock gore, endless dental trauma and a violent sex scene. But as much as anyone might remember this, it will be for the erotic-looking eels — who all deserve Screen Actors Guild cards for their recurrent appearances.
The project’s central problem: Almost every major character is despicable, starting with Lockhart, a young business executive who is sent to extricate his CEO from a remote wellness center in the Swiss Alps. Portrayed by Dane DeHaan with an aggressive entitlement, he becomes the protagonist only after the introduction of the cultist Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Along with his eel caretaking duties, Volmer has somehow convinced the world’s greatest business leaders to turn off their phones and allow him to perform experimental medical procedures with equipment from the 1930s.
Even when he makes a bad movie, Verbinski seems to have a wonderful synergy with his crew. “A Cure for Wellness” includes nearly seamless visual effects, effective steampunk/hospital production design and a haunting 1970s-tinged horror score composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Like Verbinski’s previous bomb, “The Lone Ranger,” the colors look 10 percent more vibrant than real life — as if his movie subjects are in reality and we’re the ones living in the dream.
But somewhere between the introduction of Volmer’s creepy daughter (Mia Goth) and Lockhart’s first encounter with the eel horde, it becomes clear that there are more coincidences than rules in the plot, and at best a loose storytelling plan.
Even worse, there is absolutely no warmth to be found. Making the movie seem even longer is the realization that every person on screen is someone you’d avoid sitting next to on a bus.
There’s a decent “Crimson Peak”-style gothic thriller in here somewhere, with a better lead character and about 50 minutes shaved out of the middle. Instead, we get “A Cure for Wellness”: a very lumbering but convincing argument for outpatient therapy.