“A Cure for Wellness” is a big long road to nowhere.
A scenic road, no doubt, with a couple of interesting sights along the way, but that only gets you so far. Gore Verbinski’s film goes on and on in an attempt to make a somewhat scary story yet more twisted and frightening. Instead it just makes it longer, more confusing and less compelling, flattening out most of the scares along the way.
The film opens in Manhattan after dark, where, long after hours, a man is furiously working on some kind of financial transaction incomprehensible to most of the world. He gets up to visit the water fountain — and seizes up, collapses and dies.
Welcome to the movie!
The man, it turns out, works for the mega-financial corporation that Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) works for. But Lockhart, at the moment, isn’t stressed. A cocky young maverick, he’s made a big deal that’s won him a corner office and the envy of his young peers. Now the leadership wants him to travel to Switzerland to retrieve Pembroke (Harry Groener), the company’s CEO, who went to a spa to relax and has sent word, by way of a curious letter renouncing the evils of capitalism and possessions, that he will never return.
Lockhart doesn’t have much choice. He crunches numbers like a fiend on the train after he’s landed, chewing nicotine gum by the handful. A driver picks him up and, helpful in the way that movie drivers often are, tells Lockhart a couple of key pieces of information on the mountainous road to their destination in the Swiss Alps. First, the spa is built on the site of a castle that villagers burned to the ground, horrified by unspeakable experiments that went on there. Second, almost no one who checks in “on the hill” ever leaves.
This is a good time to point out that Verbinski(“The Lone Ranger,” three of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies) sees no use for a soft touch when a hammer is available.
The place is beautifully creepy, with attendants and staff and patients, if that’s the word, dressed in white. It looks out of time, something from another century, which is part of the point — to relax.
And drink the water.
The aloof staff gives the imperious Lockhart the runaround and won’t let him see Pembroke, so he decides to try again later. But while he’s being driven down the mountain there is an accident. He wakes up in a room at the spa, a cast on his leg, with Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Issacs), who runs the place, explaining that he’ll be laid up for a few days before he can retrieve Pembroke, so why not enjoy the place in the meantime?
Now here, drink this nice glass of water.
While he’s not snooping around for Pembroke, Lockhart gets to know Hannah (Mia Goth), who grew up at the spa — a “special case,” as Volmer puts it. She’s as weird as everything else about the place, but she and Lockhart hit it off and even take an ill-fated journey into town.
Meanwhile Lockhart is seeing eels everywhere. And there is the matter of the staff dentist, about whom the less said, the better.
How much is real? How much is in Lockhart’s head? Why is it in his head? How much of it is like an old-time campy horror film with a little modern-day moral creepiness thrown in? (Answer to the last: about 20 minutes worth.)
Verbinski manages some squirm-worthy moments, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli creates a creepy look throughout. But the story doesn’t make sense as it goes along and then devolves into absurdity. And the going along takes a while — the film is 146 minutes long. About the best that can be hoped for “A Cure for Wellness” is a late-night slot in cable-TV rotation around Halloween, when paying less attention makes its many shortcomings stand out less.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Justin Haythe. Rated R (for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity, and language). Running time: 146 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.