In Hollywood’s seemingly endless crusade to transform old B-movie genres into A-list material, Gore Verbinski, who was instrumental in reviving the pirate picture, resurrects the mad scientist template in “A Cure for Wellness”—particularly the one about the guy who will do anything to bring his wife or fiancée back from the dead (e.g., “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”). In the process, however, he and writer Justin Haythe have concocted a tale so absurd, presented with such ludicrous solemnity, that it becomes an unintentional spoof—unlike “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which was designed to be funny. The picture is, however, loaded with chilly, elegant visuals—so much that they weigh things down even more.
Beginning with a distinct “Shutter Island” vibe, the film introduces a highly flawed hero named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious young shark at a Wall Street financial firm, with some rule-skirting in his background. He’s called upon by the Board to travel to Europe in order to retrieve the company’s CEO, one Pembroke (Harry Groener), who refuses to return from an Alpine spa but is needed to sign off on documents that will speed through a much-needed merger.
The spa turns out to be housed in an aged mountaintop mansion built on the grounds of a castle that, it is eventually revealed in lethargic fashion, was burned down by angry locals when the last baron was found to be involved in something unspeakable with his beloved sister. Now the place is filled with elderly, white-robed, invariably rich residents who spend their days playing croquet, doing crossword puzzles, eating lavish meals and—more importantly—drinking glass after glass of the supposedly restorative waters prescribed by the establishment’s punctilious, creepily solicitous head, Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs).
Lockhart plans to grab Pembroke and depart quickly, but a car crash involving a deer—a sequence Verbinski, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and editors Lance Pereira and Pete Beaudrea choreograph with typical attention to every detail, as DeHaan is buffeted about—leaves the young man with his leg in a cast, confined to the clinic himself. He does make contact with Pembroke, but the man is determined to stay, muttering about the illness that has long been eating away at him and the efficacy of Volmer’s treatments. Lockhart also encounters an ethereal young girl, Hannah (Mia Goth), of whom Volmer is extraordinarily protective and whom Lockhart comes to believe he must save from the doctor’s obsessive clutches.
It takes Verbinski nearly two-and-a-half hours to reveal the secret of the spa, which involves the fate of the baron and his sister, those curative waters, hordes of swarming eels, the odd nature of Volmer’s medical procedures, and little blue vials of liquid “vitamins” from which he—and others on his staff—regularly place drops on their tongues. As he hobbles about the hallways or into the nearby village in the course of his investigations, poor Lockhart suffers terribly—he’s beaten up so often one loses count, and in addition to the initial car crash will be hurled over the hood of another vehicle while riding a bike. He’ll also be put at the mercy of Volmer’s infernal machines, which at one point submerge him in a tub of water and at another will force-feed him with something else The poor fellow is also tormented by nightmare flashbacks to his unhappy life, particularly his father’s suicide and his mother’s death.
All that will slowly lead to a final confrontation between him and the sinister doctor, in which the latter’s unholy plans are finally unmasked as his happily hooded patients dance wildly in the ballroom to the strains of a waltz by composer Benjamin Wallfisch (who elsewhere contributes a moody repeated theme) that sounds suspiciously similar to the one by Shostakovich that Kubrick used in “Eyes Wide Shut.” The entire final sequence, indeed, seems like a nod to that film, though the denouement also exhibits strong links to “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Throughout DeHaan suffers majestically, at least after the first reel when he’s playing the grinning Wall Street master of the universe. Isaacs appears to be channeling a Nazi stereotype—something accentuated by a scene lifted from “Marathon Man,” yet another of the obvious influences here. Goth is a pretty but blank presence, but Groener and Celia Imrie have a few moments each as the patients we get to know best.
“A Cure for Wellness” looks great, with lots of individually cool shots that take advantage of Eve Stewart’s lavish production design, many of them featuring its water motif (though those showing a car speeding along a cliff-side Alpine road, reminiscent the similar moments from “The Shining,” have a vertiginous impact). But the dank, gray color palette eventually has a numbing effect, as ultimately does the film as a whole. The sheer goofiness of the final reel will doubtlessly wake you up, but before then the slow drip of revelations will probably lull you to near-slumber.
Even with its myriad flaws, however, it must be admitted that the picture is an improvement on Verbinski’s last, “The Lone Ranger.” That observation is what might be referred to as damning with the faintest of praise.