Horror director Gore Verbinski has returned with another unsettling piece, continuing from his work on the tame but popular Pirates of the Caribbean scares and The Ring, with a gaslighting tale complete with excruciating body horror in A Cure for Wellness.
Rising star Dane DeHaan features as Lockhart, an ambitious young corporate executive tasked with travelling away from his towering skyscraper where he serves a large company to find the missing CEO, who was last known to be in an isolated and luxurious health spa in the Swiss Alps. Once inside the idyllic retreat he finds hellish practice beneath the smiling veneer - led by the charismatic Jason Isaacs as Dr Volmer - and also connects with a mysterious patient named Hannah (Mia Goth).
The plot of the film feels like a composite of many films before, and resultantly feels rather thin. There are shades of Kubrick, Burton, and del Toro here. The mystery behind the film all grows rather predictable as the story goes on, so its real thrills come in its gruesome execution, and boy can it get gruesome; appealing to some of our most basic phobias, such as drowning, dentistry, and phallic animals. Within the gothic elements perhaps lies some of the most interesting themes of the film and some of its more ludicrous moments that fall into camp. There is a Freudian nightmare in proceedings and yet this darkness is somewhat scuppered by a half-baked subplot and a ridiculous ballroom scene (which, while entertaining, detracts from the tone).
Verbinski is not subtle with these themes, particularly the comparison of the hellish spa to the ruthless corporate world Lockhart craves to ascend in, but in his lead actor he really manages to sell this and produce a smarter film for it . DeHaan is terrific as Lockhart, an unlikely and flawed hero with a dark intensity beneath his awkward charm which the film manages to somewhat unravel, DeHaan really excels in the most violent sequences. Isaacs does his reliable villainous performance and triumphs as per usual (despite some thinly written motivations), while Goth has little to do other than prance around and look frightened. Essentially the film mostly rests on DeHaan's shoulders, but this is a strength, along with the exquisite artistic design.
The film's aesthetics and tone are its high points, despite the latter going slightly off-course in the climax. The cinematography, score, and set design is a wonder, with one particular moment from Lockhart's past being consistently replayed and, while simple, is still terribly haunting. All of this makes one grateful for Verbinski's budget - in fact his studio backing is rather surprising - the disturbing content and manic nature of the film is not typical fare for the multiplexes, and for that its guts is commendable (not to mention its long and deliberately excruciating runtime of 146 mins).
Overall, Verbinski offers a foreboding and entertaining watch, with an incredible style, however, the plot is rather thin and the tone gets somewhat lost towards the end. Look to DeHaan to save the day, however, especially with that final shot.
A stylish gothic turn by Verbinski that falls short.