I don’t understand who or what Gore Verbinski is as a filmmaker. Maybe I never have. He has proven that he can handle adventure (Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), drama (The Weather Man), horror (The Ring), family fare (MouseHunt, Rango), even if some of his works result in box office disasters (The Lone Ranger). But, even The Lone Ranger is a ‘guilty pleasure’ sort of fun. With Verbinski’s latest effort, A Cure for Wellness, it’s hard to say what it is or even why one would feel the necessity to champion and foster it as a piece of art. It’s rare that I have this kind of disdain for a film but, boy, do I ever. If Gore Verbinski were a dog, I’d shove his nose in this movie.
To begin, the plot is something out of a game of Mad Libs. You’ve got a young hotshot trader named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) who is sent to Switzerland to retrieve a superior, who has retreated to an exclusive spa for what everyone refers to as ‘the cure’. When he arrives, he is quick to begin expecting that things aren’t quite what they seem. The facility’s leader – a docile Jason Isaacs – keeps reassuring him that everything is fine and that he should just relax, even though he sees bodies being taken below a church and eels pouring out of every place an eel could possibly hide. There’s a Marathon Man-esque dental scene, a ballroom dance like something out of a Kubrick film, a Rules of Attraction ending, and fifteen pounds of dumb in a ten pound sack. This is like Ken Russell directed a Roger Corman film produced by William Castle.
Let’s break down the faults with, what I call, A Cure for Intelligence:
- Nothing makes sense. Nothing. So much of this film goes unexplained that I walked out only remembering the final ten minutes or so. They are so disconnected from the rest of the film, it’s like they walked out of Crimson Peak. So much attention is paid to the water, the reservoir, and the eels and none of it really connects together in a satisfying manner. They don’t even ever try to really explain the correlation.
- Nothing pays off. Every opportunity is missed. A toilet bowl handle keeps jiggling (this happens multiple times), and we knows it’s the God damned eels. It’s not a surprise. There have never been this many prominently placed eels in a film. Ever. This film has more eels than Viola Davis has snot bubbles.
- Nothing stops. This film is like the Energizer bunny. There are three instances where our protagonist succumbs to the temptations of the clinic only to ‘snap out of it’. Three times. When your run time is two and a half hours, maybe trim one of those revelations? Maybe trim the random, unexplained, unnecessary masturbation sequence? Of course, this entire picture is, essentially, Verbinski’s masturbating all over the audience.
- Everything is pretty. Yes, this is a problem. The film is art directed within in inch of its life, but not in that really luscious Guillermo del Toro kind of way. It’s overkill. It’s Gore Verbinski just gratifying himself over and over again. “Look what I can do!” We see what you can do, Mr. Verbinski, with $40-million dollars worth of bad deer CGI. We see what you can do with all those panels of white linen.
The first third of this film is the most interesting because we don’t really know where it’s going to go. We have a stranger in a strange land after an oddball opening involving a stock analyst. With nothing answered, this mystery is somewhat beguiling. It’s in the second third of the film where everything goes to hell. Verbinski starts peeling back layers, only to reveal even more confusing layers, muddling the coherence of the narrative. The third act is just a hodgepodge of 100 different movie influences, from The Wicker Man and Eyes Wide Shut to Phantom of the Opera and Lair of the White Worm. It’s here when I came to the conclusion that Verbinski needs someone to reign him in at all times, a cinematic service dog.
Between this film and Crimson Peak, the question of what the current state and future of mainstream gothic horror will be is begged. Will we see a major studio take another chance on a big budget, off the wall gothic horror film again? These days, horror films are produced with micro budgets and turned into franchises with very little thought. A $40-million picture like A Cure for Wellness could have financed 10 or more Blumhouse productions. So will this box office calamity render the end of risk taking in the horror genre? Probably not, but I like to think Verbinski will be responsible for something terrible so I can dislike this movie even more.
This film is all about ego. It’s a director thinking he can do anything he wants, surrounded by a team reassuring him of his genius and status as an auteur. Gore Verbinski, for all his great work, is hardly an auteur. He is a good filmmaker with enough of a visual sense to make the occasional piece of art. But, for my money, his most effective film is the one with the least amount of visual pizzazz – The Weather Man. Whereas with an auteur like Guillermo del Toro, there is the unrelenting feeling that we are being guided by someone that knows exactly what they are doing at every moment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but it is always quite deliberate, meticulous, and according to plan. Verbinski is the cinematic equivalent to shoving handfuls of ideas into a jar and drawing at random. The whole project seemed like it might have started with him finding a castle he thought was cool, and just building everything from there. I am sure it didn’t, but that is how it feels.
As far as saving graces go, there aren’t many. Of course the art direction – as overwhelming as it might be – is impressive, but it’s also predictable. We’ve seen this sort of hospital before; we’ve seen this sort of labyrinthine crypt before. Verbinski clearly has a lot of affection for the gothic horror films of yesteryear, but mere emulation isn’t enough for a picture to work. I suppose Dane DeHaan works as our protagonist, as well, but I couldn’t help but think a more charismatic actor might have made the sluggish parts more tolerable. Part of what made Shutter Island work was DiCaprio’s spastic energy. DeHaan doesn’t have those tools in his kit. If I can recommend one thing about A Cure for Wellness, it’s this: watching this film will make you feel smart because you’ll see everything coming from a mile away. The filmmakers will get nothing past you. Sometimes, it’s nice to feel like you’re one step ahead of the picture. But if you’d rather take a few steps back, that’s cool – you’ll be where Verbinski is.