Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"A Cure for Wellness" Review: A Visual Work of Art That Lacks Any Real Substance


It's a rare thing when a major film studio hands over gobs of cash to an established filmmaker and lets them do whatever they want. Usually only heavy weights such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan or Robert Zemeckis can lay claim to such majestic treatment. But director Gore Verbinski can now be added to that esteemed list of auteur's as his latest film A Cure for Wellness can only be seen as a project that was made solely for the benefit of the filmmaker himself as it really carries little significance beyond being a canvas for the man to explore a different side of creative self that was clearly never meant to turn much of a profit nor gain much of a following outside those who love film for the craft itself. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime:  2 hr 26 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: February 17, 2017

Biases:  
Loves:  Atmospheric horror flicks
Likes: Pirates of the Caribbean (the first one), The Ring, Rango, Dane Dehaan
Neutral: The Pirates sequels, Style over substance
Hates: Constantly resetting the main character over and over again
What kind of horror is this?: More psychological than gory

Lockhart contemplates the task at hand.

After a tragic incident claims the life of a senior partner at a large New York based financial institution, the other partners bring in the young and very ambitious Lockhart (Dane Dehaan) to take his place at the table. Lockhart's initiation is to travel to the Swiss Alps and locate the company's CEO Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener) and retrieve him from a special "wellness center" he has been at for the past few months. They need Pembroke to help facilitate and offer his signature towards a merger the company is trying to put through and it is up to Lockhart to make sure he is there when it happens. Lockhart reluctantly agrees and after saying goodbye to his ailing mother he is on his way to the reclusive spa resort/sanitarium.

Upon arriving he is greeted by the medical staff of the center where he quickly discovers that not everything going on there is as it seems. His efforts to locate and speak with Pembroke are thwarted at every turn and when he attempts to return to the local town he is involved in a serious car wreck that leaves him with a broken leg and unconscious for the next three days. When he awakes he comes face to face with Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the man who runs the sanitarium as well as its primary physician. Lockhart is told of his injuries and is allowed to move about the facility freely where he meets a mysterious young girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who just might be the key to unravelling the mysteries there.

The locations used are nothing short of gorgeous.

With all that exposition you would think that there is a rather complex and interesting story underneath this veil of visual beauty but you sadly would be wrong. Gore Verbinski is a skilled filmmaker, his remake of The Ring and at the very least the first Pirates of the Caribbean film are both genre defining films. Even his venture into animated territory struck gold with the much better than it should have been Rango. His skill behind the camera not withstanding A Cure for Wellness feels like an experiment gone horribly wrong. Where it goes wrong though is the peculiar part as between a scatter brained screenplay and some very odd tonal decisions early on in the film it is one of the more frustrating film experiences I have had in quite some time.

Let's start with that tone though since one of the more important aspects to any film firmly rooted in the horror/thriller genre lives and dies by its balancing of tone. While it isn't a requirement to adhere to any set of rules sometimes those rules are in place for a reason and when your film is clearly invoking classic horror tropes such as the curious stranger investigating a mysterious castle it is important to remember what made those other films work. When Lockhart first shows up to the center he is greeted by a staff of oddballs who act guilty way before he has any reason to suspect anything. Case in point is when he attempts to visit Pembroke and how the nurse immediately shuts him down in a way that felt more like she is hiding something than someone enforcing the rules.

Hannah is your typical sheltered girl waiting for the right man to un-shelter her.

The same goes for the administrator he meets soon after that who behaves in a way that immediately makes you suspect he is up to no good. The fact that an alarm isn't set off in Lockhart at that meeting is enough to make you want to throw up your hands and give up on the guy right then and there which isn't something you should be feeling towards your main character. That is the real culprit here though, that the audience is able to detect something wrong way sooner than Lockhart and even when he does begin to piece things together he never truly acts the way someone in his situation would. When he does eventually make it to the local town instead of looking for the quickest way to the train station he sits down for a beer, visits the local doctor and makes a phone call before being hauled back up to the sanitarium. For someone who up until that point has felt trapped it makes absolutely no sense that he makes no attempt to run and creates this extreme disconnect that the audience can never really recover from.

This is all compounded by the bizarre decision to constantly reset Lockhart over the course of the film. For example, there is a scene in which he is the victim of a rather unkind dental procedure that he escapes somehow (we never see how) and eventually concludes with a standoff between him and the sanitarium staff. We fade to black and for some reason Lockhart is back at the sanitarium receiving treatments with little to no fuss. Then eventually he begins his detective work again which leads him to a horrifying encounter with a horde of baby eels, a tube down his throat and...well, you get the picture. Directly following that sequence we find Lockhart not only extremely calm and docile but apparently his dental damage has been repaired (are those fake teeth?). This circle of events continues to repeat a couple more times which gets tiresome real quick.

Lockhart uncovers many mysteries but none seem to really matter.

The Problem here is that we never fully know or comprehend what is happening to Lockhart at any given moment. Besides the maddeningly frustrating reset button that keeps getting pushed (each time we get all the answers it is revealed that we actually didn't) there never seems to be any rhyme or reason to the sequence of events. Perhaps one can make the argument that the audience is being placed in Lockhart's point of view and just as he doesn't fully grasp what is happening to him we too struggle to understand the point of anything. But that argument doesn't hold any water since it isn't ever alluded to that Lockhart is the subject of any sort of mind control or suggestive treatment of any kind. We don't even get the obligatory scene where our main character is mentally broken down.

Most of this could have been looked past however if the destination justified the journey to get there but sadly the ultimate reveal of what was truly going on is both underwhelming and completely predictable. It was bad enough that we knew going in that something bad was going on at this place but the fact that the mystery behind these events is written on the wall from the get go and devoid of any sort of intrigue makes that rocky journey to get there even more frustrating. A Cure for Wellness is a very pretty movie to look at and has a decent cast all doing far better work than the script deserves but none of that can save it from succumbing to its flawed execution and often times baffling narrative that leaves the audience in a state of annoyance more so than a state of shock that it so wants to instill in us.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

It's hard to understand what happened here exactly. The whole film feels like a miscalculated experiment from beginning to end. One can be forgiven for falling under its spell early on simply based on the immaculate production design and cinematography believing that there is much more going on than there actually is. The story is barely developed as are the characters themselves with a number of threads never followed up on (what happened to Lockhart's mom exactly?) which leads to a finale that is both long overdue by the two and a half hour mark and wholly unsatisfying. This is one cure that is not worth seeking.

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