‘Wellness’ a valiant attempt at a better movie

Images courtesy 20th Century Fox.

5/10 Between Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring and Rango, Gore Verbinski’s consistently popular movies have grossed $3.72 billion worldwide, making him the 10th-highest grossing director in the world.

With a projected opening of $6-8 million, A Cure for Wellness isn’t going to do much to pad those totals.

The psychological thriller starts with Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a brash, ambitious sales executive, sent to retrieve his company’s CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from a wellness center at the foot of the Swiss Alps known for the local water supply’s rejuvenating properties. Driving back from first visiting the center, of which he is immediately suspicious, Lockhart breaks his leg in an accident and is admitted for treatment. Crippled and with no cell reception, Lockhart is trapped in an extended nightmare of eels, teeth and toilet levers.

A Cure for Wellness does one thing well — it gets under your skin. This movie’s problem is it doesn’t really know what it wants to be from scene to scene, but it knows exactly what it wants to be as a whole — creepy. And creep it does.

The film is phobia-obsessed. Almost every scene has a trigger of some kind. The most completely done themes, that the doctors are lying and there’s something in the water, play well into some of the most pervasive paranoias about authority and the corruption of natural resources, but there’s also a lot of play on creepy crawlies, dentistry, childhood trauma, menstruation, sexual taboos, gerontophobia and claustrophobia. In his first horror movie in 15 years, Verbinski, who also produces, lays it on thick with a much more active camera than we’ve seen from him and plenty of long closeups on disturbing details peppered throughout.

Verbinski directs his binski off and DeHaan works wonders with a thinly written character, but it’s in the service of a script that seems like a mess of pieces from different puzzles. Scenes don’t to connect to each other, as a narrative or conceptually. One scene, for example, is a slow walk through the steam bath complex as the walls seem to shift around Lockhart, and the next is a frenzied attempt to escape from a sensory deprivation tank. The movie’s first scene depicts Morris (Craig Wroe), the man whose job Lockhart will inherit, having a heart attack in the office and dying, an event that hasn’t even a peripheral connection to the main plot. Sometimes, Lockhart will get out of tight spots because the scene just ends, and he’ll start the next free of whatever bind he was in. At a couple of points, he just walks out of the facility.

The film is frequently gorgeous, even when it isn’t taking advantage of its backdrop in one of the world’s most majestic settings. Even the gore and terror has an awkward beauty to it most of the time.

There are two or three movies’ worth of concepts at play in A Cure for Wellness. Most of them don’t jive, and some are simply dropped halfway through the movie — mostly the ones about Lockhart personally. They have this subplot where his father killed himself in front of him as a child so he’s traumatized from that, and the SEC is after him, and he’s obviously supposed to have some sort of character arc, but I’m not sure what it is. He doesn’t work through any of his issues or become a better person.

While he refuses to go back to the office at the end of the movie and that’s supposed to be some marker of character growth, it actually implies that the movie’s main antagonist, facility director Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), is right all along when he says the stressors of the financial world make people sick, and that’s a huge problem for several reasons.

That, or Lockhart has just decided to take asylum in Switzerland since they never wrapped up the SEC plot thread. One of the two.

Maybe there’s a three hour version of this movie that brings these threads together to the point that his character arc makes sense, but A Cure for Wellness’ 146 minute runtime is already a sore spot. The movie could shave time by dropping a few of the unsettling close-ups that linger just a little too long, but those are what really give this movie its personality. It would have been better to drop all elements of Lockhart’s background and simply deal with having an unlikeable lead character, a problem the movie ends up stuck with anyway.

A Cure for Wellness is a valiant attempt at making a better movie than it is. Ultimately it’s a failure, but that’s all right. It’s an ambitious and perfectly enjoyable squirm-inducing thriller.

Leopold Knopp is a professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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