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Are you drinking the water?

A Cure for Wellness
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Well, this is far more suited to Dane DeHaan’s slightly suspect shiftiness than ludicrously attempting to turn him into an outright action hero (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). It’s not, though, equal to director Gore Verbinski’s abilities. One of Hollywood’s great visualists but seemingly languishing without a clear path since he was cast adrift from collaborating with Johnny Depp, unfortunately, he must cop most of the blame for A Cure for Wellness, since it was his idea.


There’s a whiff of Shutter Island’s pulp psychodrama tonally, as DeHaan’s unscrupulous finance company executive Lockhart is sent to a Swiss health spa to fetch back a board member vital to pressing ahead with a merger. No sooner has he reached the alpine wellness centre, resplendent in the grounds of historic castle with a dark past, than he’s involved in a car accident, leaving him with a leg in a cast and “encouragement” to recuperate on site, taking the waters while being subjected to strange hallucinatory encounters and visions. The patients are all elderly – barring Mia Goth’s Hannah – and seemingly resigned to remaining there, languishing blithely, their teeth dropping out due to dehydration, despite imbibing vast quantities of fluids. And then there are the eels. And Dr Volmer, who’s played by Jason Isaacs, so you know he’s a stinker.


Is Lockhart going mad? Is all the oddness in his own mind? His mother warned him “You won’t come back” when he left, which is pretty ominous. And company man Pembroke (Harry Groener) is full of misgivings, regarding which Lockhart seems implicated, presumably by the very fact of being involved in finance (“We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things”).


The set up, then, is at least intriguing, even if it feels as if events can only unfold in a limited number of predictable ways. While Wellness, fortunately, doesn’t end with DeHaan in a state of perma-dribble, the architect of his own delusion, as that would be a Shutter too far, there’s contrastingly never very much doubt that this is all real, even if the precise nature of events is murky for a portion of the running time. Although, you don’t have to really try to put two and two together too hard to get the gist of the link between the tales of villagers rebelling against experiments by a mad incestuous baron two centuries past and the present incumbent presiding over more dodgy goings-on.


Which is a problem, as Verbinski, yet again in his career, is happy to take his bleeding time. Wellness runs to two-and-a-quarter hours, and could only have benefited from being pruned to around 90 minutes. He can bring a picture in at a commendably concise length (Mousehunt, Rango, The Weatherman) but given enough rope he’ll give himself way too much slack. There isn’t enough going on here to hold the attention for long, no matter how typically well-furnished the green-tinged frames are (courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli), and it lacks the relief of Verbinski’s batty sense of humour. Instead, one’s mind drifts to The Mighty Boosh when numerous eels start tickling down inside Lockhart. There’s an appropriately cringe-making tooth extraction scene to pass the time, and some dodgy effects work (a dying deer, a doctor without a face) as the picture lurches into an OTT finale that suits Isaacs’ theatrics but leaves you wondering that such extensive build-up led somewhere so anti-climactic.


Mainly because the picture starts off with a sense that it has pretensions to be about something, but ends up as empty set dressing, a bit like Robert Zemeckis’ more comedic but also all-about-the-art-direction Death Becomes Her. It may be that Verbinski intended A Cure for Wellness to be a commentary on the elite poisoning the masses while incestuously perpetuating their bloodlines, but since that’s right on the surface, it’s hardly an allegorical take.


For those who like the director in more serious mode (The Ring), A Cure for Wellness will likely be welcome, but it reminded me that, even at his most bloated (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), he usually remembers to include an infectious sense of fun amid his prevailing world conjuring. If A Cure for Wellness is any indication of what was in store, tone-wise, from his cancelled Bioshock, it may be just as well it was cancelled. Verbinski’s now attached to the long-delayed Gambit, in an attempt to muster some commercial cachet after two flops in a row. Hopefully he can make Channing Tatum seem interesting (which he rarely is when he isn’t in a comedy).


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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