The psychological thriller "A Cure For Wellness" is less a remedy than a watered-down (literally) placebo. It dissolves pretty quickly -- and not in the fizzy heights director Gore Verbinski intends.
Reteaming with his "Lone Ranger" scribe, Justin Haythe ("Revolutionary Road"), Verbinski (the Oscar-winning "Rango") exhibits a fascination we don't share for a story about a man (Dane DeHaan) being treated at the Volmer Institute, a strange health spa in the Swiss Alps. Guests wear white robes, play croquet and practice tai chi. But more sinister stuff happens behind closed doors. DeHaan's high-strung, nicotine-gum chewing Lockhart travels from New York City to the spooky locale to retrieve a Mr. Pembroke (Harry Groener), the CEO of a financial company. An accident forces Lockhart to stay. He quickly realizes this is the EU version of The Hotel California: You check in but never leave.
Curious stuff ensues. And for awhile there are some genuine eerie moments. Most involve disgusting, slippery eels, and medieval medicinal contraptions. I won't lie, I jumped and squirmed in my seat a few times. That dental scene is brutal. Jon Hamm lookalike Jason Isaacs is the sincere-but-sinister head doctor, Volmer, who administers unknown liquid vitamins to his patients and exercises questionable tactics. Straight out of creepy-girl-in-horror-movie casting is Mia Goth's mysterious Hannah, a young abandoned lass who Volmer shelters. The supporting characters include a puzzle aficionado (Celia Imrie) preoccupied with the spa's ominous history and Lockhart's mother (Rebecca Street), who eerily predicts her son's demise.
The idyllic mountain setting provides a beautiful backdrop for cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who lets his camera linger on detail shots such as serpents on the cast-iron gate or water pitchers to visually support the story. Everything has big-picture meaning, especially water, which the spa (sanitarium?) guests drink in copious amounts. No one -- until Lockhart, that is -- ever wonders why their teeth are falling out, or why they behave like robots.
Verbinski aims to be provocative, dissecting material success and even our nation's "sick care" system. He's onto something, but the ridiculousness of the story tosses these issues aside as quickly as they are raised. He sells out for something more grand, and that's when the movie falls apart. Verbinski proffers too much ambition is a sickness -- and he's the biggest offender. #Ironic.
We're left with Lockhart trying to find Pembroke, trying to escape, trying to unlock Hannah's secret and trying to figure out what's going on. DeHaan ("Kill Your Darlings") is a formidable young actor recalling an early-career Leonardo DiCaprio, and like the Oscar-winner, he tends to be overzealous on screen. Perhaps it's to compensate the preposterous script and the bladder-busting 145-minute runtime. Watching all that water imagery didn't help, by the way.
A foreboding old sewer entrance piques Lockhart's interest. When we finally see what's inside, the movie has dissolved fittingly into excrement itself. How entertaining is it to watch a grown man sexually assault a young girl who literally seconds before "became a woman" in a pool full of eels? That vile scene does nothing to advance the narrative. Exercise an ounce of prevention and steer clear of this "Cure."
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
"A Cure for Wellness"
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth.
(R for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language.)