An endless train bends into itself while hitting a curve, coiling like a serpent as it vanishes into a mountain tunnel; we’re approaching a destination that could be Heaven or Hell. On this timeless vessel sits A Cure for Wellness’ ostensible everyman, a young solicitor high on ambition, as well as the promise of wealth to be found at the end of his journey. For here, at the end of the world, the modern “West” meets its ancient counterpoint, and the only rules seem to be what you or they make them out to be. But when they are residents of an aging castle that time forgot, movie protagonists should beware.
I love these kind of Gothic horror stories, and the first hour of A Cure for Wellness, with all the Dracula undertones that come gushing out of it, is no exception. So it’s kind of a shame that the movie is ultimately like so many Victorian music boxes found in its genre’s ancestors: it’s meticulously and ornately designed on the outside, with an exquisitely haunted affectation running throughout the entire presentation. But once opened, it’s fairly empty within.
A Cure for Wellness centers on a modern man afflicted with all the most paralyzing illnesses of the 21st century: greed, avarice, and ambition. He’s known as Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), and no Christian name is required. Despite being only in his early 30s, he has already risen to the heights of his Wall Street firm’s boardroom. A modern day killer, Lockhart is the kind of person our current president would call one of “my friends.” But unfortunately, if he wants to keep his precarious perch, his career is dependent on his ability to travel to the Swiss Alps and retrieve his CEO, who after a two-week vacation has decided to cut off all communication with the outside world and to live forevermore in the care of his Edwardian spa’s director, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs).
But lest you think this is a rescue mission, know that Lockhart is planning to extract his mad employer so that he can be a patsy for the SEC. Hence, more driven by our times than any of the elderly, lonely, and filthy rich patrons at this health center, Lockhart will fall higher than any of them when he arrives to the retrofitted Swiss castle on a mountain, with the insistence that he’ll be gone with his prize inside of 20 minutes.
As it turns out, he may never leave, certainly not for the film’s 146-minute runtime. By checking into this Hotel California, Lockhart almost immediately finds himself with a broken leg and a prescription for experimental treatments by Volmer—the kind focused more on the body’s liquids (as opposed to its blood), and the type that never, ever allow the use of anesthesia.
Still within the picturesque and medieval setting, Lockhart does discover certain distractions, including Hannah (Mia Goth), Volmer’s ward who waifishly spends her days standing barefoot atop the castle’s battlements, and warning young men that no one ever leaves. There are also ghost stories about how, 200 years ago, the castle was the site of a grisly history involving quack science, incest, and murder. Want to guess if those forgotten spirits will come roaring back?
To be sure, there is plenty of intrigue and mystery buried in A Cure for Wellness. However, it is trapped underneath so much indulgent excess that Lockhart isn’t the only person in danger of going crazy. Modeled on the kind of lurid fairy tales that scarred children in the 19th century, the film never aims to modernize or subvert its narrative beats beyond the shiny 21st century sheen of Lockhart’s narcissism—which could be fine if the film was half an hour shorter, and it didn’t repeat each “shock” three times and to the point where audiences figure out the proverbial twist at least 60 minutes in.
Thus it is both an asset and a liability that the picture wears its influences on its sleeve. Lockhart’s journey into darkness obviously mirrors Jonathan Harker’s own lurid adventure in Bram Stoker’s vampire tale, but the movie is also heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s visions of sterile hallways and maddeningly kind servants with wicked smiles in The Shining. The picture also recalls Roman Polanski’s depiction of friendly torment and hysterical paranoia in Rosemary’s Baby, right down to Benjamin Wallfisch’s demonic lullaby which stalks Lockhart every step of the way—another effective element that after nearly three hours loses its menace from overuse.
Cure is beautifully designed by director Gore Verbinksi, proving he still has an eye for evocative, waking nightmares 15 years on from The Ring. He imbues every image of Gothic oppression with a postcard tranquility, which makes the implicit menace of the place all the more overbearing. He also frugally utilizes sudden moments of shocking violence for maximum impact.
However, much like his last two Pirates of the Caribbean films from the mid-2000s, A Cure for Wellness does not know how to cull its varied elements into a more straightforward campfire yarn. His decadent framing is gorgeous, and his actors are all uniformly solid, with Isaacs especially shining as he slowly kills Lockhart with kindness, one pulled tooth at a time. But the fact that we must endure multiple teeth being lost, and a completely rote climax which robs the film of any sense of ambiguity, undermines the quality that’s already there.
In the end, A Cure for Wellness is a gorgeous looking film, and a genre throwback that is arguably more exciting than Guillermo del Toro’s own Gothic dalliances in 2015’s Crimson Peak. For suckers for this kind of story, including myself, the cure is probably worth enduring the film’s many ailments. But that being a universal diagnosis seems questionable at best.
A Cure for Wellness is now in theaters.
This review was first publihed on Feb. 7.