Before it goes bizonkers, A Cure for Wellness is one of those wonderfully delirious oddities that occurs when Hollywood’s vast creative resources are put in service of a talented director’s singularly wacked-out idea. In this case, Gore Verbinski (who developed the story with screenwriter Justin Haythe) exorcises some worries about contemporary workaholism by making a creepy, fantastical, and eventually perverse horror extravaganza set in an elite spa in the Swiss Alps.
Dane DeHaan, an actor with an appropriately sickly demeanor, stars as Lockhart, an ambitious finance suit who is sent to retrieve an executive from the aforementioned spa, which caters to corporate titans on the verge of burning out. Once there, he finds a bizarre institution with a grisly past, endless corridors, and bizarre treatment practices, some of which involve, um, eels.
Borrowing from the Frankenstein legend, The Shining, and Shutter Island, Verbinski unleashes every visual impulse he’s seemingly ever had (not that films like The Lone Ranger, The Ring, and those in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are known for their restraint). When Lockhart’s limo pulls up to the spa, it’s perfectly framed by the intertwined iron snakes that adorn the outer gates. While he wanders through a misty series of tiled steam rooms, doors seem to disappear and reappear, and at one point he glimpses an elk. Later, there is an insert shot of a glass jar of extracted teeth; suddenly, inexplicably, they shift as if something lives among them.
Another image is of a crossword puzzle which has been cut into paper strips that blow away in the wind. I wish I could say that this is a visual metaphor for the movie’s meaning, a suggestion that nothing we see is really supposed to make any sense. Unfortunately, Verbinski and Haythe have concocted an elaborately ludicrous and explanatory background tale, which they spend the last 30 minutes of the film enacting. Whatever simmering surreality the movie had dissipates amidst a series of literalized awfulness. For awhile, A Cure for Wellness is a potent horror satire about the nutty lengths we go to in hopes of surviving our age of exhaustion; by the end, it simply exhausts us.