Fancy a visit to a spa in the Swiss Alps? The pure sparkling waters, the nurses in crisp white uniforms, the patients playing croquet in the gardens of a spectacular schloss cum sanatorium atop a mountain?
That’s where young finance whiz Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) goes for his shady New York firm. Pembroke (Harry Groener), a board member, has sent a nonsensical letter full of slogans saying he’s not coming back to their illusory world of gain and corruption. His absence endangers a merger.
Lockhart isn’t very nice. He has dark rings under his eyes and too much ambition. He’s under-loved. This trip is under duress: the board will overlook his petty larceny if he brings Pembroke home.
Bram Stoker could charge a royalty on this set-up. It’s Dracula, with the names changed. Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) tips a wink by having Lockhart pelted with rubbish by hostile locals in the village below the clinic.
Their predecessors burned down the castle 200 years earlier when the baron tried to impregnate his own sister, the chauffeur explains.
Jason Isaacs, as Herr Dr Volmer, greets the visitor with such perfect manners that we know he’s a wrong ‘un. No telling what kind of atrocities are under way in this weird place – a cross between the hotel in The Shining and Hitler’s nest at Berchtesgaden.
A Cure For Wellness is not a horror movie as such, which might disappoint those who liked Verbinski’s remake of The Ring. It has the trappings of horror but not the effects, because it’s not in the least bit scary.
The tone is creepy, verging on nasty. A deer gets run down by a car and Verbinski uses CGI to show us the animal’s pitiful attempts to walk on broken legs.
Lockhart talks to one of the doctors, whose eye is shown massively enlarged in the foreground, leering through a magnifying glass.
There’s humour in the way Verbinski portrays the inmates of the castle, who never want to leave. Celia Imrie plays an eccentric but observant older woman, and Mia Goth is a wafting ingenue – a “special case”, as Dr Volmer keeps saying. There’s even an Igor-type at the gate.
If Verbinski had brought pace, the film might have worked, but he takes an eternity, then throws it all to the winds with a finale that’s remarkable silly, even in this fanciful neck of the woods.
Two-thirds of the film is foreplay – he’s building layers of detail, like a painter, expecting us to watch it dry. Verbinski is too experienced for this to be accidental – and given the debacle of his previous movie, The Lone Ranger, you’d think he would have thought twice about offering us 146 minutes of I’m-not-quite-sure-what-this-is.
In his terms, he’s casting off and inverting conventions by elongating the development, making Lockhart unsympathetic, moving at glacial pace. In my terms, he’s philosophising through his own fundament.
He’s trying to create a cult movie about the culture of consumption, but that’s not his privilege. Audiences choose what becomes a cult movie: that’s what the word means. Directors who try to win that sort of following are just pandering – and likely to be disappointed.