Gore Verbinski is one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. He’s often underappreciated and rarely brought into the conversation when discussing visionary directors often because he’s become associated with adapting big budget properties. While the first Pirates of the Carribean blew audiences away in 2003, its sequels sullied the memory of Black Pearl and the inflated disaster of Lone Ranger didn’t help (even though I find that movie bizarrely entertaining). But with 2011’s Rango, he showed promised of what he’s capable of when given a blank check. The mental hospital thriller, A Cure For Wellness does not need to be a big budget feature but when you’ve got Verbinski and a studio that is still willing to entrust him with lots of money, you get a visually alluring piece with an original concept that goes all the wild places that Verbinski’s mind can take it.
This is a movie that never relaxes. From the Matrix green opening where you watch an unnamed man have a heart attack to being transported to a train winding through the Swiss Alps, the tone is constantly unnerving. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent on a type of rescue mission as he’s sent to a high profile Wellness spa to retrieve a fellow stock broker who has lost his sanity. The young Dehaan who looks like a child pretending to be a businessman but as dickish as his superiors, is rightly skeptical of the secluded, Hogwart-esque center. We know something is not right and after a car accident lands Lockhart in the institution with a broken leg, we’re strapped in to piece together the mystery that lies beneath and within the castle. The film’s angst and unease work because it never toys with idea that maybe it’s all in Lockhart’s head which is a thriller red herring I despise. Starting with the warning of his chauffeur to the pristine and robotic front desk attendant, the characters, the setting and everything around Lockhart is questionable and you’re dying to know all the answers.
What makes me appreciate Cure For Wellness so much is its ambition and extreme choices. While Verbinski can make everything look pretty, there’s an ugliness in the narrative to go along with that. As I’m currently watching a fair amount of New French Extremity myself, Wellness is of the same ilk, pushing the boundaries of body horror and taboo subject matter. The dark and disgusting nature of certain scenes is quite unexpected from a primarily Disney director. I’m always happy to see a big budget film go for a hard R and it very much earns it as the third act goes heavily off the rails. An extended run time (2 hours and 25 minutes) allows a lot of story to unfold and any time it started to lose me with foreboding child drawings or uncomfortable gender politics, it pulled me back with its lambasted crazy agenda that I can’t believe Verbinski was allowed to make.
In the genre of “Hospital Horror” Wellness towers over other entries such as Shutter Island and Suckerpunch. Verbinski has a knack for tension, utilizing the immobility of Lockhart’s handicap and accentuating the creaking sound of his crutches is one of the many touches that heightens the anxiety which is the defining trait of this genre. While you can see the influences of B- monster movies and the cruelty of Marathon Man, this is a film all its own. Filled with unpredictability and constantly wanting to one ups its own bonkersness, I foresee this one staying with me to the end of 2017. Glad movies this good coming out at the start of the year, we could use some hope.