Film Review: A Cure for Wellness
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Gore Verbinski makes interesting images. I had high hopes for his horror film A Cure For
Wellness, because its genre requires the type of visuals that are in his wheelhouse. In the Pirates
of Caribbean movies his undead sailors with holes in their skin are so much more compelling than
the Disney plot. There's poetry to the death and ghoulishness that the story lacks.
In Wellness there are some wonderful images. During an early exposition scene for example,
we momentarily study an animal trophy head to see how the room looks reflected in a dead deer's
eye. But as with other Verbinksi, the story and characters need work. And the slickness of the
images undercuts them. There's either too much CGI (a live deer car crash victim) or they're overly
orchestrated, too devoid of human detail. Wes Anderson's compositions are likewise
over-calculated, but that calculation builds on itself, filling the frame with unpredictable results.
Here when the hero imagines a naked woman in bathtub full of eels, there's very little else in the
room besides the bathtub. No sink, no mirror, no shower curtain. The camera lets us see that
empty space. It looks like the empty vacuums in which luxury cars appear in ads, but set in the
beats of a script it plays more like a cereal commercial. How front and center the product is
overrides the reality you're being presented. The fictional family loves the cereal they're selling so
much they can't be real.
It has the effect of looking at small museum pieces isolated in (greenish) white. The asylum
the movie is set in is sparsely furnished, but doesn't feel lived in. The plot: A Wall Street CEO
(Harry Groener, Buffy's The Mayor) sends a Lovecraftian letter from a Swiss health spa. An
unlikeable young executive (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his detestable corporate masters to bring
him back. He finds the retreat may not be all it seems. The exec is treated to horror staples: a
mysterious girl (Mia Goth), an odd director (Jason Isaacs), and various mysteries about the
grounds. There are tales of a centuries-old tragedy. He finds it harder and harder to leave, and
notices unearthly things like bugs in the water, and nightly corpse removal. Everything unwinds
slowly, and it's meant to be fun in the unwinding.
It's not. The film is a strange marriage of slow burn horror and conventional blockbuster
filmmaking, complete with explosions in the third act. There are references to Fantasia and
Phantom of the Opera, but they are fun nods in a dry desert of predictable storytelling. I was
surprised when a sauna scene occasioned nude extras with elderly, imperfect bodies. Hadn't what
I was watching been focus grouped to death? Hadn't everything been scrubbed of what might
offend the Platonic ideal of an American moviegoer? That's why the movie was frustrating. It
needed more things that like those elderly bodies, which were not proportioned in exactitude for a
specific effect. Its conscious attempts at this: eels in IV tanks, people floating in glass tubes like
Damien Hirst paintings, an evil dentist's jar of a thousand teeth --these needed to come at music
video speed, not parceled out over two hours and twenty minutes. They are the reason film exists,
yet we spend most of that time with the plot that justifies their insertion into it.
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Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie, Adrian Schiller