There's a temptation facing reviewers to anticipate the commercial prospects of movies before they are released. This is usually a fool's errand; anyone who believes they know what will be a hit and what will flop should find a different career. Nevertheless, it's hard to resist predicting a general audience's reaction. Such was the case with A Cure for Wellness, and the prediction went something like this: "People are going to hate this movie."
It's important to emphasize the distinction between such predictions and my own feelings about the film. A whole lot of what makes this film occasionally fascinating—or, at the very least, lurid fun—can also seem like the result of a computer program designed to earn a C- CinemaScore. But A Cure for Wellness is also frustrating for the difference between how it begins and what it ends up delivering. If you're going to make a freaky amalgam of allegory, morality play and body horror, it's best to let the audience know in advance that's what they're in for.
Not that the opening minutes don't hint at something sinister. From a prologue set amid forbidding skyscrapers backed with slate-gray skies, the story transitions to a financial services whiz kid named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) who may have cut a few regulatory corners to seal his latest deal. His bosses use that slip-up to blackmail him into a strange assignment: retrieving the company's CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), from the exclusive Swiss spa from which he has sent a message claiming that he intends never to return. When Lockhart arrives at the "wellness center," run by Dr. Vollmer (Jason Isaacs), he finds an almost cult-like atmosphere in a castle with a creepy history.
Director Gore Verbinski does creepiness well—he directed the first American iteration of The Ring—and he sets the stage with a handful of arresting shots, like an empty room full of glowing computer terminals and an image playing off the mirrored surface of a European train. The production design is a top-to-bottom delight, employing ominous hospital corridors and steampunk-y isolation tanks for a sense of dilapidated menace, and populating these sets with patrons and staff members all dressed in crisp institutional white.
Eventually, however, there's the not-inconsequential matter of what A Cure for Wellness is ultimately about, and that's where things get messy. Initially, it promises to use its solve-the-mystery structure to explore the contemporary "disease" of power-mad careerism, offering a touch of David Fincher's The Game via Lockhart's history of following in the footsteps of his suicidal father. Will Vollmer, addressing the existential black hole in the lives of his wealthy clientele, turn out to be the villain of this story, or its hero? How does his remote, no-cellphone-service mountain hideaway fit into a world of perpetual faces-staring-at-screens anxiety?
A Cure for Wellness turns out to be considerably more complicated than those questions, not least regarding the identity of a mysterious, childlike young woman named Hannah (Mia Goth) who stares down from the castle walls and hums unsettling tunes. The mythology gets more convoluted by the minute, until the resolution tempts viewers to say, "That's where you were going with this?"
And that's not even touching on all the unpleasant places Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe go in the film's second half: dental torture, forced ingestion of disgusting substances, rape and incest—material that average viewers are unlikely to applaud. A Cure for Wellness may have slipped a lesson about modern life into its sinister setting, but it's hard to find amid the bloated, operatic Grand Guignol trappings. There's never a dull moment as ticket buyers scurry unhappily toward the exits.
A Cure for Wellness opens at the Carmike 12.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Look away"